MILWAUKEE — After days of legal wrangling, partisan mudslinging and grave warnings from public health professionals, Wisconsin forged ahead with its elections on Tuesday, the first state to hold in-person voting during the height of the coronavirus pandemic.
Thousands of Wisconsin residents, forced to weigh the risks to their health against their willingness to exercise the right to vote, arrived before polls opened at 7 a.m., casting ballots for the national Democratic presidential primary and several contests between Republicans and Democrats in major state and local races.
Some poll workers wore makeshift hazmat suits, more reminiscent of health care professionals than electoral volunteers. Most voters came prepared with masks, gloves, hand sanitizer and Clorox wipes. Many said they were racked with fear.
“They say they don’t want you to get sick, but then they send you out here in the damn crowd,” said Lawrence Johnson, a 70-year-old cleaning worker in line to vote at Riverside High School. “There are people like me who are handicap — we have no business doing all this just to vote.”
At Washington High School on Milwaukee’s North Side, a woman carried a homemade sign that read “This Is Ridiculous.”
Despite their trepidation, voters who showed up at polling locations — there were only five in Milwaukee, compared with the typical 180 — said that this was their day to be heard. Some Democrats spoke of a sense of defiance to their actions, a determination to challenge the state Republicans who refused to move the election date even after requests from public health experts.
Nyree Sanders, 45, contacted her work supervisor while she was in line, after it became clear the voting process would take up much more of her day than anticipated.
“I just don’t get as to why they were so insistent that we have to vote today,” Ms. Sanders said. “Why don’t they take us into account? Why don’t they take our health into account?”
Chris Wheeler, an appliance repairman, said he thought about not voting, but since he’s been working a high-risk job anyway to sustain his income, he decided he might as well “exercise my constitutional right.”
“It’s just irresponsible,” said Mr. Wheeler, who is 58. “I’ve been in places where people are infected, I’ve been in hospitals — it’s just my reality right now. It is what it is.”
Officials in state after state have postponed in-person voting in the last month, grinding the Democratic primary to a halt as the impact of the coronavirus has disrupted every aspect of American life. However, in Wisconsin, pleas from state Democrats to delay voting were ignored by the Republican leaders in the Legislature, who said moving the election was too drastic a measure and an infringement on personal liberty.
Republicans in particular expressed outrage when the state’s Democratic governor, Tony Evers, proposed an expanded absentee ballot voting system that would mail a ballot to each of the state’s millions of registered voters. Republicans also successfully blocked an executive order by Mr. Evers on Monday to use emergency powers to delay the election, after the State Supreme Court, which is controlled by conservatives, reversed Mr. Evers’s order.
The consequence was an election on Tuesday that was criticized as both unsafe and illegitimate. National figures like Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont called for it to be delayed, and the leaders of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin — which was seeking to win a vital State Supreme Court seat — said it could not encourage people to vote in good faith.
Erin Baldeon Fischer, a 32-year-old graduate student, said she saw the line at her Milwaukee polling place on Tuesday and decided the health risk might be too great.
“I have a 9-month-old; I’m not sure I feel comfortable being there with an infant at home,” she said. “I’m not sure it’s a responsible decision as a mother.”
Ms. Fischer said several friends and colleagues had made similar decisions.
“A co-worker was in tears,” she said. “This is the first election she’s been eligible for that she won’t be voting in. She has no one to watch her daughter, and she obviously won’t bring her to the polls.”
But the distress was hardly noticeable in other parts of the state that are less populous, more white, and more likely to vote Republican. In communities like Beloit, more drive-through voting options were available, and the elimination of some polling places was likely to have less of an effect.
In Wauwatosa, which borders Milwaukee, polling locations were virtually empty as supply outpaced the demand. Outside the region in Cedarburg, a more Republican community, two polling locations had virtually no wait, and some voters arrived and left within 10 minutes.
Charlotte Rasmussen, the Republican chair of Clark County in central Wisconsin, said she had no concerns.
“It’s been so far, so good,” Ms. Rasmussen said. “Things are going well, everybody is in protective gear and everyone is trying to practice social distancing.”
In Brookfield, a city in nearby Waukesha County, one resident said his polling location was adequately staffed, had good social distancing and was relatively easy to navigate.
“Our kids are voting in Milwaukee and they’re definitely waiting longer than we did,” said Bruce Campbell, 65. “You can feel the blue county, red county dynamics. It’s difficult to watch.”
On Tuesday in Milwaukee, the state’s most populous city and the Democratic power base of the state, voting logistics were a categorical nightmare. The city cut more than 170 polling locations before the elections, citing health concerns, and lines at Riverside High School — one of five places where city residents could cast a ballot — snaked for about four blocks.
Throughout the city, residents sought to help one another stay safe and upbeat. One house opposite Riverside High School blared a playlist of James Brown, Bill Withers and other soul artists to keep the waiting voters energized. State Representative David Bowen, a Democrat in Milwaukee who contracted the coronavirus but has recovered, picked up absentee ballots from sick residents and delivered them to the post office.
Breana Stephens, a 29-year-old teacher, traveled to the school on her own to pass out Clorox wipes, fresh pens and gloves for those in need.
“Everybody is really on edge, and you can sense that,” said Ms. Stephens, who voted with an absentee ballot more than a month ago. “People are worried and anxious and not in the best of spirits. As a person with some free time, I wanted to do what I can.”
The differences added to the sense of grievance felt among some Milwaukee voters. They said they believed that the city’s racial makeup, abundance of Democrats and areas of high poverty made Republicans less willing to care about the health risks. Like other cities around the country, Milwaukee has also been more acutely affected by the coronavirus than the more rural parts of the state; it has a majority of the state’s confirmed cases and deaths — particularly among the city’s black population.
Clarence Carter, 70, said he was voting in person on Tuesday because he filed for an absentee ballot weeks ago but did not receive it. His wife has health issues and couldn’t stand in the line, he said.
“The polling place next to my house closed down, so I’m here,” Mr. Carter said. “I’m just disappointed. This is really crazy.”
So why vote?
“It’s the ballot or the bullet,” he said, quoting the famous speech by Malcolm X.