Wisconsin voters don masks, brave lines as state forges ahead with its primary during coronavirus pandemic

Key Points
  • Wisconsin held its primary election as scheduled Tuesday, despite the coronavirus pandemic. 
  • Voters, many donning face masks, waited in lines to vote at a limited number of polling locations. 
  • The conservative-majority Wisconsin and U.S. Supreme Courts shot down efforts to delay in-person voting and extend the deadline to file absentee ballots during the outbreak.
A man checks in to cast his ballot in at a Democratic presidential primary election at the Kenosha Bible Church gym in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on April 7, 2020.
Kamil Krzacynski | AFP | Getty Images

Masked voters braved winding lines to cast ballots in Tuesday's Wisconsin primary after courts struck down efforts to change the election process in light of the coronavirus outbreak ripping through the country. 

A string of states delayed their primaries until June to keep voters safe from the spreading pandemic. Not Wisconsin, where lines — spaced out to reduce contact between people — tailed out of the drastically limited polling places open for voting. Milwaukee, facing a shortage of election workers, slashed its voting locations from 180 to five for the city 600,000 residents. 

Read more: Wisconsin voters go to the polls despite coronavirus health risks. Here are some photos

The state went ahead with the election Tuesday after court battles between state Republicans, who wanted to hold the primary as scheduled despite the threat of COVID-19, and Democrats and voting rights groups, who pushed to expand absentee ballot access or delay in-person voting. The state Supreme Court on Monday blocked Democratic Gov. Tony Evers' executive order to postpone in-person voting until June. It said he did not have the authority to move the election date on his own. 

Then, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed a lower court order to extend the deadline to file absentee ballots, in a separate case filed before Evers' action. Even so, the court's decision did not change one remnant of the legal tug of war: Wisconsin counties will not report results until Monday. 

Voting rights advocates and lawmakers such as Sen. Bernie Sanders — one of the candidates in Tuesday's Democratic presidential primary — heaped criticism on the conservative-majority courts, saying the decisions jeopardize safety and the fundamental ability to participate in elections. The saga foreshadows ugliness that could come if the outbreak has not subsided before the presidential election in November. 

In a Monday night statement responding to the Supreme Court ruling, Wisconsin Republican Party Chairman Andrew Hitt cheered the decision, saying the court "concluded that election laws should not be changed on the eve of an election."

Voters in Wisconsin will decide between Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden in a race for the presidential nomination that has essentially slipped from the Vermont senator's grasp. The state has focused more attention, though, on a slate of local and state races, including one for a seat on the very court that overruled Evers' executive order. 

President Donald Trump, whose administration has discouraged large public gatherings to stop the spread of the deadly disease, urged Wisconsin residents to vote in the state Supreme Court race between conservative Justice Daniel Kelly and liberal challenger Jill Karofsky. In a tweet Tuesday, he told the state to "get out and vote NOW" for Kelly. 

Donald Trump tweet

The eventual Supreme Court justice could help to decide a fight over removing up to 209,000 people from voter rolls in a state that will play a major role in deciding the next president. Biden and Sanders have endorsed Karofsky.

Biden's campaign has not criticized Wisconsin for moving forward with the primary. Last week, Trump's likely challenger told reporters he thought the state could vote safely if it observes proper social distancing guidelines at polling places. 

His outlook differed from that of Sanders, the national Democratic Party and Evers. In a statement Monday night, Sanders said that "holding this election amid the coronavirus outbreak is dangerous, disregards the guidance of public health experts, and may very well prove deadly."

His campaign, which has had to stop traditional in-person events during the pandemic, said it would not engage in get-out-the-vote efforts in Wisconsin. 

In a tweeted statement Tuesday, Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez said "what is happening in Wisconsin today is dangerous, and the GOP should be ashamed."

Tom Perez tweet

The governor said Monday night that Wisconsin residents would be forced to "choose between exercising their right to vote and staying healthy and safe."

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