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The Wisconsin Primary Had A New Hurdle: The Coronavirus Pandemic

In Milwaukee, only five of the usual 180 polling places were open

Voters in Wisconsin cast their ballots for the presidential primary on Tuesday (April 7) — but not without having to navigate a prohibitive combination of hours-long lines, drastically reduced numbers of polling places, and a need for masks and other protective gear to minimize the spread of the novel coronavirus. In short, this is what in-person voting looks like during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Election day almost didn't happen at all, up until the very last minute: On Monday (April 6), the state's governor, Tony Evers, used the powers of executive order to suspend in-person voting, but that call was later overruled by the Wisconsin Supreme Court. The Federal Supreme Court also shot down an effort to extend absentee ballot options for voters who might be rightfully fearful of showing up to the polls in the middle of a pandemic — now, any mail-in ballots in the state must be postmarked by April 7 in order to be counted. (Democrats had petitioned to extend the deadline so that ballots would have to be received by April 13, but Republicans asked for the more stringent timeline.)

Plenty of officials voiced their dismay at the decision to carry on with the primary election as normal, especially given that photos and videos of lines and personal precautions showed a reality that was anything but. House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-SC) said he was "appalled that the U.S. and Wisconsin Supreme Courts refused to allow any modification in the interest of public health and democracy alike," while Wisconsin's Lieutenant Governor, Mandela Barnes, called the entire production a "shit show."

Even so, hundreds of Wisconsinites showed up to perform their civic duty, and they did so while attempting to maintain the CDC's recommended 6 to 10 feet apart from one another in the hours-long lines. Because of the state-mandated stay-at-home order, many polling places couldn't open at all; per the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Governor Evers called in the National Guard to staff some locations. Even so, there were 5 polling places open to the city of almost 600,000 people — typically, 180 polling places are available to Milwaukee's residents.

The New York Times noted that there were fewer lines in other cities, which is alarming on several levels. Almost two-thirds of the state's Black residents live in Milwaukee county, and the median age for the Black community is relatively young: 28 to the state's average 38.

“Our kids are voting in Milwaukee and they’re definitely waiting longer than we did,” Bruce Campbell, a resident of nearby Brookfield, told the Times. “You can feel the blue county, red county dynamics. It’s difficult to watch.”

Per Vox, 1.2 million people in the state had requested absentee ballots this year, which is almost five times as many as the state usually handles in primary elections, and roughly one-fifth of the total population.