Wisconsin voters forced to choose between health, democracy

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USA TODAY NETWORK

An election official cleans a voting booth before a person votes at Riverside High School, in Milwaukee on Tuesday, April 7, 2020. The Wisconsin primary is moving forward in the wake of the coronavirus epidemic after Gov. Tony Evers sought to shut down Tuesday's election in a historic move Monday that was swiftly rejected by the conservative majority of the Wisconsin Supreme Court by the end of the day. (Mike De Sisti/Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel via AP)

MADISON, Wis. – If Wisconsin was a test case for voting in the age of the coronavirus, it did not go well for many voters.

Thousands were forced to congregate for hours in long lines on Tuesday with no protective gear. Thousands more stayed home, unwilling to risk their health and unable to be counted because requested absentee ballots never arrived.

Voters reported being afraid, angry and embarrassed by the state's unwillingness to postpone their presidential primary elections as more than a dozen other states have already done. Neither Joe Biden nor Bernie Sanders will be declared a winner at least until next Monday in accordance with one of several court orders that shaped the contest.

And there was evidence that minority voters were disproportionately impacted by widespread poll closures in their communities. Michael Claus, 66, wore a protective mask and a Tuskegee Airmen cap, as he waited to vote.

The African American man said he tried to vote absentee and requested a ballot in March but it never showed up. His only option was to vote in person. He blamed the Republican-controlled state legislature.

“They could have delayed the election with no problem,” Claus said. “They decided if they can suppress the vote in Milwaukee and Madison, where you have a large minority presence, you can get people elected you want elected. And that’s sad.”

The chaos in Wisconsin, a premiere general election battleground, was expected to reverberate across states that still have primaries ahead. Alaska, Wyoming and Ohio are conducting contests by mail this month, and other states, including Georgia, are slated to hold in-person voting in May.

Election experts warned that Wisconsin was an example of what not to do. And the experience added immediate context to the broader debate about protecting voting rights this November.