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Polls closed Tuesday night in Wisconsin’s presidential primary, which candidate Bernie Sanders has said “may very well prove deadly” — with voters waiting hours in long lines outside overcrowded polling stations and ignoring federal health recommendations in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
Results were not expected Tuesday night. A court ruling appeared to prevent results from being made public earlier than next Monday.
Thousands more stayed home, unwilling to risk their health during a statewide stay-at-home order, but complained that the absentee ballots they had requested were still missing.
Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, had issued an executive order to delay the election, following an urgent warning by mayors of Wisconsin’s largest cities that “hundreds of thousands of citizens at risk by requiring them to vote at the polls while this ugly pandemic spreads.” But, the move drew instant pushback from the GOP-controlled state legislature and was overturned on the eve of the primary by the Republican-dominated state Supreme Court.
As long lines formed in urban areas and elsewhere, some 2,500 National Guard troops stepped in to provide some assistance, distributing hand sanitizer and other supplies to polling stations across the state.
In a surreal scene that rocketed around social media on Tuesday, Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos declared that the election was “incredibly safe” — even as he wore a face mask, safety glasses, gloves and a full protective gown. Vos was assisting the National Guard in ensuring a polling station functioned smoothly.
In Madison, city workers erected Plexiglas barriers to protect poll workers, and voters were encouraged to bring their own pens to mark the ballots.
And, state GOP Chairman Andrew Hitt downplayed the health concerns: “This isn’t New York City.”
He noted that Wisconsin residents are still going to the grocery store, the liquor store and even boating stores, which are classified as essential businesses. “I can’t really think of something more essential than voting,” he said.
The chaos in Wisconsin, a premiere general-election battleground, underscored the lengths to which the coronavirus outbreak has upended politics as Democrats seek a nominee to take on President Trump this fall.
Robert Forrestal, left, wears a full face chemical shield to protect against the spread of coronavirus, as he votes Tuesday, April 7, 2020, at the Janesville Mall in Janesville, Wis. Hundreds of voters in Wisconsin are waiting in line to cast ballots at polling places for the state’s presidential primary election, ignoring a stay-at-home order over the coronavirus threat. (Angela Major/The Janesville Gazette via AP)
As the first state to hold a presidential primary contest in three weeks, Wisconsin became a test case for dozens of states struggling to balance public health concerns with voting rights.
Joe Biden hopes the state will help deliver a knockout blow to Sanders in the nomination fight, but the winner of Tuesday’s contest may be less significant than Wisconsin’s decision to allow voting at all. Its ability to host an election during a growing pandemic could have significant implications for upcoming primaries and even the fall general election.
After several hours of voting, there were signs that the Wisconsin test was not going well.
The state’s largest city opened just five of its 180 traditional polling places, forced to downsize after hundreds of poll workers stepped down because of the health risks. The resulting logjam forced voters to wait together in lines spanning several blocks in some cases. Many did not have facial coverings.
The fight over whether to postpone the election, as more than a dozen states have done, was colored by a state Supreme Court election also being held Tuesday. A lower turnout was thought to benefit the conservative candidate.
The partisan fight over the primary – which is an initial skirmish for a brewing larger national showdown over voting rights – extended all the way to Washington, D.C., where the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday night struck down a federal district court’s ruling allowing a weeklong extension to return absentee ballots. The ruling by the high court broke along ideological lines, with the five judges appointed by Republicans winning out over the four appointed by Democrats.
Trump on Tuesday broke from health experts who have encouraged all Americans to stay home by calling on his supporters to show up for the conservative judicial candidate.
Bridget McDonald, right, receives a ballot from poll worker Patty Piek-Groth on Tuesday, April 7, 2020, at the Janesville Mall in Janesville, Wis. Hundreds of voters in Wisconsin are waiting in line to cast ballots at polling places for the state’s presidential primary election, ignoring a stay-at-home order over the coronavirus threat. (Angela Major/The Janesville Gazette via AP)
“Wisconsin, get out and vote NOW for Justice Daniel Kelly. Protect your 2nd Amendment!” Trump tweeted.
However, at Tuesday’s White House coronavirus briefing later in the day, Trump said questions concerning the safety of the election were the responsibility of the state’s governor.
Sanders said that holding the election was “dangerous” and “may very well prove deadly.” He did not encourage his supporters to vote in person. Biden has largely avoided discussion of the Wisconsin contest in recent days, instructing his supporters only to “follow the science.”
Wisconsin has reported more than 2,500 coronavirus infections and 92 related deaths — 49 of them in Milwaukee County, where the voting lines were longest.
Sisters Kelly and Teal Rowe work behind a plexiglass barrier while waiting to verify voters at the town’s highway garage facility, Tuesday, April 7, 2020, in Dunn, Wis. Voters in Wisconsin are casting ballots at polling places for the state’s presidential primary election, ignoring a stay-at-home order over the coronavirus threat. (John Hart/Wisconsin State Journal via AP)
As of midday Tuesday, most voting sites in Milwaukee were reporting wait times between one-and-a-half to two-and-a-half hours, according to Neil Albrecht, executive director of the Milwaukee election commission. Lines stretched several blocks outside buildings as workers tried to maintain social distancing recommendations that everyone stand at least six feet apart.
Tens of thousands of voters who received absentee ballots had not returned them as of Tuesday, Albrecht said. He noted that his office received hundreds of calls from people who didn’t get an absentee ballot or were concerned theirs hadn’t been delivered to election officials.
Fox News’ Paul Steinhauser and The Associated Press contributed to this report.