As nation battles coronavirus, Wisconsin election forges on with in-person voting

Wisconsin stands as an outlier as more than a dozen states postpone contests.

April 7, 2020, 8:43 PM

After a chaotic series of emergency orders and legal challenges, Wisconsin’s election unfolded Tuesday against the backdrop of a country waging war with a surging global pandemic.

President Trump urged voters to head to polls tweeting "Wisconsin, get out and vote NOW for Justice Daniel Kelly. Protect your 2nd Amendment."

In a response to ABC News' Rachel Scott, who asked if the president should be responsible if people get sick after voting in person, Trump accused Democrats of raising concerns about the matter only after he made an endorsement.

"All I did was endorse a candidate. I don't know anything about their lines. I don't know anything about their voting," he said.

"Safety, safety, safety, right?" Trump added. "All of a sudden they want safety. Before I did the endorsement they didn't talk about safety. It was fine, for months it was fine. It was always going to be and now I endorse and they want safety."

Last week, President Trump’s campaign manager, Brad Parscale, slammed Democratic front-runner former Vice President Joe Biden for wanting the election to go forward.

"@JoeBiden , the man who claims he has all the answers to the virus crisis, wants the people of Wisconsin to risk their lives because he’s so desperate to be the nominee. SAD!" he tweeted.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin Democrats pledged to not mobilize in-person voting on Tuesday, in order to keep voters safe. The state Democratic Party also called on the state GOP to do the same.

State Rep. Gordon Hintz, the Democratic minority leader in the state Assembly chose to sit out of Tuesday's election to avoid the risk of voting in-person after his absentee ballot was never sent.

"It's definitely a bad time for Wisconsin and for democracy in our state and country," Hintz told ABC News in an interview Tuesday.

Hintz is among nearly 10,000 Wisconsin voters who never received an absentee ballot after requesting one. He requested a ballot on March 22.

In battleground Wisconsin, one of the most crucial states in November, the spring election careened toward chaos in the 24 hours before polls were to open, with partisan debates over how the election should proceed.

The state’s top Democrat, Gov. Tony Evers, and state Republican lawmakers spent the days leading up to the election at sharp odds after the governor reversed his stance on postponing the election late last week.

Tensions escalated between the two parties on the eve of the election after Evers issued an executive order delaying in-person voting until early June. The abrupt move was a reversal for the governor, who for weeks said he could not change the election "on my own" -- meaning without the GOP-controlled state legislature.

Evers acted only after state lawmakers refused to postpone the election in a special session, saying at a press conference on Monday the "circumstances have changed." The election includes the Democratic presidential primary between former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, as well as general elections for the state Supreme Court and local races.

"I cannot in good conscience stand by and do nothing," Evers said. "The bottom line is that I have an obligation to keep people safe. I've tried for weeks to meet Republicans in the middle to find common ground and figure out a Wisconsin solution, but at every turn, they fought all the way to the United States Supreme Court, even the most basic and common sense proposals to ensure a safe and fair election."

State Republicans swiftly challenged his emergency action, filing a motion with the state Supreme Court. Within hours, the conservative-leaning bench blocked Evers’ order in a 4-2 decision. One justice, Daniel Kelly, who is up for election on Tuesday, recused himself from the case.

Evers said the order was his last available course of action.

"This is it ... this will be the last avenue that we're taking," he said at a press conference Monday. "There is not a Plan B, there's not a Plan C."

In this Feb. 6, 2020 file photo, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers holds a news conference in Madison, Wis.
In this Feb. 6, 2020 file photo, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers holds a news conference in Madison, Wis.
Steve Apps/AP

Republicans scored another victory in a separate lawsuit also seeking to postpone the election, this one before the U.S. Supreme Court. The nation's highest court, voting 5-4 along ideological lines, reversed a lower court's ruling that had extended the deadline for absentee ballots by six days.

The court ruled that absentee ballots must be postmarked by Tuesday and arrive by April 13 to be counted. As of Monday, nearly 1.3 million absentee ballots had been requested, an unprecedented number, and 12,000 ballots had not yet been sent to voters. Only about 57% of absentee ballots that were sent have been returned.

Running an election on empty

In the wake of the legal wrangling, election officials held an emergency meeting late Monday night to determine how to apply the latest court rulings to the election. Among the issues was a debate about when clerks can report the election results under the order from the U.S. Supreme Court. The lower federal court had ruled that clerks could not begin reporting results until 4 p.m. on April 13. The state's chief elections official, Meagan Wolfe, said Monday night that the state would still follow that guideline.

"Election night results will not be made available until the 13th," she said.

Wisconsin, which has 2,500 confirmed cases of COVID-19, is one of a shrinking number of states that are moving forward with in-person voting despite the coronavirus outbreak. Fifteen states and one territory have postponed elections due to the coronavirus.

On Tuesday morning, Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes invoked an expletive, and some sarcasm, to describe the day of the election.

"Good morning and welcome to the [S***] Show! Today’s episode has been produced by the Supreme Court and directed by the incomparable Speaker and Senate Majority leader duo. Buckle up, this one’s sure to disappoint!"

For weeks, voters were strongly encouraged to vote absentee while state leaders, mayors, and local clerks tried to minimize the spread of coronavirus on election day. Efforts to enforce social distancing at the ballot box were hampered by a shortage of poll workers, which required consolidating polling sites.

Nearly 60% of Wisconsin municipalities reported a shortage of election volunteers, and 111 jurisdictions reported they could not staff even one polling place. As a result, Milwaukee, the state's largest city, will have only five polling locations instead of the 180 that historically operate on election day. Local officials said there could be as many as 4,000 to 5,000 voters at each of the five polling sites on Tuesday.

After a number of polling sites consolidated, Wolfe said on Monday that she is "not aware at this point of any place that is stating that they're unable to open" on election day. She said that "nearly 2,500 service members with the National Guard" will be deployed to fill any shortages of poll workers.

In an effort to safeguard both voters and volunteers, the state procured nearly 6,000 liters of hand sanitizer, about 7,000 rolls of paper towels, and at least 750,000 disinfecting wipes to distribute to county clerks on election day. Poll workers will be wearing masks and gloves -- but it's still unclear how many of them will actually show up.

The election is moving forward as planned despite repeated pleas from local officials for state leaders to delay the election.

Hudson, Wis., city clerk Becky Eggen displays some of the health alert and social distancing signs Monday, April 6, 2020, that were to be used in Tuesday's election, postponed by the governor Monday afternoon.
Hudson, Wis., city clerk Becky Eggen displays some of the health alert and social distancing signs Monday, April 6, 2020, that were to be used in Tuesday's election, postponed by the governor Monday afternoon. Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers on Monday moved to postpone the state's presidential primary for two months because of the coronavirus pandemic, prompting a court challenge and adding to confusion about whether voters will be able to head to the polls on Tuesday.
Glen Stubbe/AP

The mayor of Madison, Satya Rhodes-Conway, criticized the decision, saying, "The Wisconsin Supreme Court is moving ahead with the April 7 election in reckless disregard for public health and the constitutionally protected right to vote. Everything that could go wrong has gone wrong with this election, not because of the pandemic, but because of cruel choices made by Republican politicians and their pet judges."

Neil Albrecht, the executive director for the city of Milwaukee Elections Commission, told ABC News in an interview on Friday, "I don't think anything about this election moving forward, both in terms of democracy or in terms of public health, is beneficial."

State Supreme Court race becomes epicenter of partisan battle

Some Democrats argued that Republicans pushed to move forward with the election for “political gain.” On the ballot is a state Supreme Court seat that could be instrumental in voting rights and election cases ahead of the November general election, in which Wisconsin will play a significant role.

"It's outrageous that the Republican legislative leaders and the conservative majority on the Supreme Court in Wisconsin are willing to risk the health and safety of many thousands of Wisconsin voters tomorrow for their own political gain," Sanders said in a statement late Monday night. "Let's be clear: holding this election amid the coronavirus outbreak is dangerous, disregards the guidance of public health experts, and may very well prove deadly."

Kelly, the incumbent judge who was appointed by Republican Gov. Scott Walker in 2016, is defending his seat against local circuit court judge and former prosecutor Jill Karofsky. Although the election is intended to be nonpartisan, Kelly nabbed a “complete endorsement” from President Trump last week, while both Biden and Sanders backed Karofsky.

The race has been the focal point of the debate between Republicans and Democrats over delaying the primary.

"There's a common sense element to this," Wisconsin Republican Party Chairman Andrew Hitt told ABC News. "If you can go out and vote on election day, please go out and vote because we have an important Supreme Court race. And we also have important local government races."

A win by Karofsky would cut into the conservative majority on the bench, which could be crucial as the court weighs a closely watched case about voter purges. The state is poised to clear more than 200,000 voters from its rolls. Kelly has recused himself from the case.

The state’s nonpartisan elections commission, which oversees the state’s elections, argued that those voters do not need to be removed from the rolls until 2021. But Republican-aligned groups would like to see the removal happen before the general election in November.

"Republicans have calculated that fewer people voting benefits their candidates," Heck said. "They are petrified that a huge voter turnout will result in Justice Kelly losing his reelection, and it’s as simple as that.”

The new term of the state Supreme Court does not begin until Aug. 1, Heck said, contradicting the notion that postponing the election would leave a vacancy on the bench.

This report was featured in the Tuesday, April 7, 2020, episode of “Start Here,” ABC News’ daily news podcast.

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