To know how Wisconsin’s decision to hold an election during a pandemic is going, look no further than the governor’s move to use the state’s Army National Guard to try and help a poll-worker shortage.
And that still may not be enough.
It’s the latest surreal sign of what the 2020 primary season has become and the strange reality facing voters in Wisconsin, who are expected to cast ballots Tuesday in an unprecedented situation that has left people in the state scrambling in light of public-health concerns and dire warnings coming from the White House nationally over the pandemic.
A Tuesday court filing showed that Democratic Gov. Tony Evers has called the Wisconsin Army National Guard to help at the polls because of the pandemic, a move his own attorney expected “will not satisfy all of the current staffing needs.”
Gerry Lisi, the head of the Barron County Democratic Party, described talking to clerks who are “scared silly” ahead of the contest. And he can’t imagine how in-person voting will be pulled off.
“I think it will happen,” Lisi said. “I think we’ll regret it. I don’t think it’s the right thing to do, but I’m kind of resigned to it.”
Wisconsin’s persistence in maintaining its April 7 primary date has put it in an odd position. As it became increasingly clear that the coronavirus could hinder contests after mid-March, Georgia, which planned to hold a primary on March 24, simply rescheduled. Other states set to hold contests this month, like New York and Maryland, also delayed in hopes that a better situation will greet voters in June.
And despite former Vice President Joe Biden’s delegate lead over Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), the contest comes nowhere near the number of delegates Biden would need to clinch the nomination. The Biden campaign is not airing television ads in Wisconsin just days leading up to the primary, two sources familiar tell The Daily Beast. The former vice president’s team is relying on digital ads instead.
As of Wednesday, the state’s election commission reported there were more than 1 million absentee-ballot requests for the spring election. The Democratic primary isn’t the only contest on the Wisconsin ballot, which also includes voting on other local candidates and an important state Supreme Court race.
Craig Brooks, the Buffalo County Democratic Party chairman, is concerned that “lots of people are just not going to vote because they don’t want to fool around with it right now.”
And he’s far more worried about the state Supreme Court race than the presidential contest.
“In my opinion, that’s the least important part of the April 7 election,” Brooks said of the Biden/Sanders matchup.
For his part, Sanders called in a statement Wednesday for the state to delay its contest while also urging extended early voting and heading toward voting entirely by mail.
“People should not be forced to put their lives on the line to vote, which is why 15 states are now following the advice of public-health experts and delaying their elections,” Sanders said. “We urge Wisconsin to join them.”
Heading toward Tuesday, the Biden campaign has been focused on other aspects of preparing for the Wisconsin primary. Team Biden’s organizers and volunteers have shifted part of their focus over the past two weeks to making sure voters have the resources available to vote safely, including by mail-in ballots. Leading up to voting, Biden’s team had been sending out advisories reminding voters that requests for vote-by-mail ballots must be made by April 2 at 5 p.m.
On April 6, members of Biden’s rapid-response team will join students across Washington, D.C., New York, and Massachusetts to make get-out-the-vote video calls through Zoom ahead of Wisconsin, representing the campaign’s first virtual phone bank of the cycle. In addition, Biden rolled out a slate of 40 new endorsements in the state, including former Sen. Herb Kohl, former Gov. Jim Doyle, and Senate Democratic Leader Jennifer Shilling.
Voting during the coronavirus pandemic has become a fraught subject, with the events leading up to ballots being cast on March 17 serving as the flashpoint. Illinois, Arizona, and Florida were steadfast in holding their contests, despite public-health concerns. What greeted some voters was a day of confusion, poll worker issues and a tension between wanting to participate in the election and keeping themselves safe amid the pandemic.
Ohio was also set to vote that same day, but last-minute maneuvers by Republican Gov. Mike DeWine’s administration over health concerns kept in-person voting from taking place.
It’s unclear if such upheaval could happen in Wisconsin, though a legal fight over the primary was continuing to play out in the state Wednesday.
“We’re in a scramble to make this election as safe as possible for as many people as possible,” Wisconsin Democratic Party Chairman Ben Wikler said Wednesday morning.
A trio of cases over the election, including one involving the state and national Democratic parties, were consolidated into one earlier by a judge, with a possible goal of the litigation being to postpone Tuesday’s primary.
On Wednesday afternoon, Wikler tweeted that the state party was supporting the call to postpone the April 7 election.
The governor has already issued a safer at home order for the state, calling on residents to stay home in most cases. At the same time, according to a court filing from the governor’s attorney, by Tuesday 111 municipalities weren’t able to “staff even one polling place,” while 126 municipalities claimed they couldn’t “staff all normal polling places.”
The leadup to Wisconsin’s primary has led to some hopes that large-scale absentee voting could reduce election day lines that may trouble voters who fear the coronavirus. But concerns remain.
“They're going to have an election conducted under far from ideal circumstances,” said Richard Hasen, an expert on election law at the University of California, Irvine. “There are going to be people who are not going to be able to vote in person who haven't requested a vote by mail ballot. There are going to be people who can't return that vote by mail ballot or have their ballots rejected for lack of a witness signature or something else. And there are going to be disparate impacts across the state.”
Wisconsin is a likely 2020 general election battleground and is scheduled to host the Democratic National Convention in July.
The election situation appears to be dire statewide, with a document from the Wisconsin Elections Commission released Tuesday showing that close to “60 percent of Wisconsin municipalities report a shortage of poll workers.”
“It should also be noted that many jurisdictions have dramatically consolidated polling places,” the document reads.
That squeeze has led to some unique election day preparations.
In the town of Delta, Wisconsin, State Sen. Janet Bewley said she is planning to be a poll worker because of a shortage in her community on Tuesday. And Bewley, a Democratic National Committee member, knows there will be challenges.
“A perfect primary in a pandemic is not possible," she said.
-With additional reporting from Hanna Trudo