MILWAUKEE—Wisconsin is now a national coronavirus hot spot, with more cases identified so far in Milwaukee County than anywhere else in the state. But that didn’t stop throngs of voters here from heading to the polls on Tuesday, the first day of in-person early voting in a hotly contested swing state with a recent history of both pandemic fear at the ballot box and far-right violence.
Lines as long as two hours were reported at some of Milwaukee’s early voting sites, and Claire Woodall-Vogg, executive director of the city’s Election Commission, said lines were forming at all of the 13 locations open Tuesday. A 14th site will open Wednesday, and two more are available by appointment only for voters with disabilities who can’t use any of the others.
After an April primary that saw the city operate just five packed “voting centers” thanks to a lack of poll workers, things were off to a much smoother start. City locations were enforcing social distancing while providing one-time-use pencils for registration, plexiglass-protected stations, and digital screens to cast votes.
Both the city and the suburbs also provide boxes to drop off ballots for those who don’t want to vote by mail or in-person.
“I’m not too afraid of COVID, honestly, and I’m wearing a mask,” first-time voter Gilberto Gonzales, 18, told The Daily Beast at the Historic Mitchell Street Library on Milwaukee’s south side. He said he didn’t know how to vote by mail but probably would have chosen to do so if he had help.
“Spread is a real concern, but I’m not too worried about it,” said Marcelo Martinez, 30, a COVID-19 survivor himself. “A lady just came here to make sure we stand six feet apart.”
As far as the possibility of right-wing intimidation and violence at polls after a summer of unrest nationwide, vigilantism in nearby Kenosha, and the president stoking intimidation by his followers at the polls, voters here mostly felt safe.
“Milwaukee is a blue city, so I don’t fear violence at the polls here, but probably at the... small towns in Wisconsin, that may happen,” Martinez said.
One voter who declined to give her name at the nearby Bay View Library was casting her ballot alongside her husband and her daughter, a first-time voter. She said that they originally planned to come in on Election Day but changed their plans amid interference in the U.S. Postal Service by the Trump administration.
“Voting by mail is just a little iffy right now, and I just feel better knowing that my vote is going to be counted. I fear in the back of my mind that my ballot may get lost if I vote by mail,” she said.
Lines extended for about half a block at both the Villard Square Library on largely blue Milwaukee’s predominantly Black north side and in the reliably Republican and heavily white suburb of Mequon.
Mark Chorbak said he often votes early, and the line at Mequon City Hall was “the biggest crowd I’ve seen here.”
Although all of the voters interviewed were wearing masks and practicing social distancing, few expressed overwhelming concern about the safety of voting during the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s safer today,” because social distancing is easier in a smaller crowd, said Emmett Edwards, of Milwaukee.
Bruce Spann, in line at Mequon City Hall, said he wanted to vote early “just in case I come down with COVID” before Election Day.
None of the voters said they were letting the prospect of voter suppression on or before Nov. 3 spook them.
“They ain’t going to stop me,” said Precious Thomas, of Milwaukee. She added she was determined to vote “to get Donald Trump out of office because if you don’t, it’s going to be mass war, destruction.”
Spann said he didn’t expect any Election Day interference with voting in Mequon’s deeply red Ozaukee County, but thought it might be a concern in the Democratic strongholds of Milwaukee, Kenosha, and Racine.
In Milwaukee, James Britt and Jessie Jones said they, too, wanted to vote in-person because they were concerned about whether mail-in votes would be delivered or disqualified.
“It really ain’t together yet,” Britt said of the mail voting system.
On Tuesday afternoon, a line of about 40 people snaked outside the Washington Park Library, most of them caravanned to the polls by a group called Metcalfe Park Community Bridges. Though the organization does plenty of civic-engagement work in the neighborhood, this was their first massive event bringing people to the polls.
“In our community, they’re not really comfortable with mailing in absentee ballots, so we want to provide the alternative,” said Executive Director Danell Cross.
She added that she was somewhat fearful for her own health, but felt this election was too important to stay away.
“I am older and I have a lot of underlying conditions: high blood pressure, enlarged heart, overweight. So of course I’m worried about COVID, but I’m even more worried about our democracy.”