‘A civic catastrophe’: Wisconsin elections go ahead despite pandemic

Washington: Six million people in Wisconsin, in the US Midwest, are currently living under an order requiring them to stay at home except for essential reasons – like visiting the pharmacy or grocery store.

But despite these tough social distancing rules, Wisconsinites went to the polls on Tuesday (Wednesday AEST) to vote in the Democratic presidential primary and a series of local elections.

Voters wait in line to vote at Riverside High School in Milwaukee for Wisconsin’s primary election. Credit:AP

Unlike 15 other states which have opted to postpone their planned primaries, Wisconsin ploughed ahead with the scheduled date. Tony Evers, the state's Democratic Governor, wanted to delay in-person voting until June, but was blocked by the Republican-controlled state legislature and the Supreme Court.

The legislature also rejected Evers' plan to make it easier for all the state's residents to vote by mail.

The sight of Wisconsinites waiting in long lines to cast ballots and poll workers wearing HAZMAT suits stunned many Americans. Should citizens in a democracy, they asked, really have to choose between their safety and their right to vote?

One widely-circulated image showed a voter, wearing a mask while waiting in line, with a cardboard sign saying: "This is ridiculous".

Politico called Tuesday's election "a civic catastrophe that never should have happened". The New York Times described the decision to proceed with voting as "insane, and utterly unnecessary".

Because of concerns about the coronavirus, there was a huge drop in the number of poll workers willing to show up to administer the elections. This led to a massive reduction in the number of polling places and, in turn, longer than usual lines. In Milwaukee, the state's biggest city, the number of polling places dropped from 180 to just five.

Susan Rice, Barack Obama's former national security adviser, responded to a Twitter image of long lines in Milwaukee with a one-word reply: "Evil".

To those familiar with the bitter partisanship that has dominated Wisconsin's recent politics, the state's idiosyncratic decision to carry out the election was not so surprising.

A poll worker sprays down a voting booth after use inside the polling location at Riverside High School in Milwaukee.Credit:Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

Wisconsin is almost evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, which heightens the intensity of electoral contests. Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton by just 0.77 per cent of the vote in Wisconsin in 2016.

The state's officials have aggressively "purged" voters from electoral rolls and introduced tough voter identification laws that require residents to show a driver's licence or other photo ID in order to cast a ballot.

Wisconsin is also a hot spot for "gerrymandering", the phenomenon where politicians draw electoral boundaries to help ensure their re-election. In the 2018 state legislature elections, Democrats won 53 per cent of the votes but received just 34 per cent of seats.

Sisters Kelly and Teal Rowe work behind a plexiglass barrier while waiting to verify voters at the town’s highway garage facility in Dunn, Wisconsin.Credit:AP

If Tuesday's vote had simply been a Democratic primary, Republican politicians may not have been so insistent on going ahead with the election. But they were concerned about another election held on the same day: a contest for a seat on the state's Supreme Court.

The race pitted a conservative judge, Daniel Kelly, against a progressive challenger Jill Karofsky. Republicans hope that low voter turnout in urban areas will help keep the seat in conservative hands.

While the battle over voting rights in Wisconsin is especially intense, it reflects a bigger battle playing out between Democrats and Republicans ahead of November's presidential election. If the virus is still circulating or has re-appeared by then, the same issues will emerge again.

Democrats are pushing for federal legislation that would allow all Americans to vote by mail in November. Republicans reject that idea, saying it is up to states to make electoral laws and that mail-in ballots are prone to fraud.

Asked recently if he supported voting by mail, Trump said: "No, because I think a lot of people cheat with mail-in voting… It should not be mailed in. You should vote at the booth, and you should have voter ID."

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