Wisconsin primary disproportionately impacted minority voters

In Milwaukee, where roughly 4 in 10 residents are black, voters were forced to congregate at only a handful of voting sites Tuesday. Election experts warn Wisconsin's decision to move forward with its primary was an example of what not to do.

Mike De Sisti/Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel/AP
Wisconsin voters cast their ballots at Riverside High School, in Milwaukee on April 7, 2020. Despite concerns over spreading the coronavirus, the Republican-majority state Supreme Court did not approve a two-month delay for its presidential primary.

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.

Going forward with the election was especially problematic in the state's largest city, Milwaukee, where roughly 4 in 10 residents are black. The city of 590,000 has suffered roughly half the state's coronavirus deaths, many of them minorities. Officials closed all but five of the city's 180 polling places, forcing thousands of voters to congregate at only a handful of voting sites.

Evidence showed that minority voters were disproportionately impacted by widespread poll closures in their communities.

Michael Claus, an African American man, said he requested an absentee ballot in March but it never showed up. His only option was to vote in person, so in a protective mask and Tuskegee Airmen cap he waited to vote.

He blamed the Republican-controlled state legislature for the situation.

"They could have delayed the election with no problem," Mr. 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.

"We have moved forward with an election, but we have not moved forward with democracy in the state of Wisconsin," warned Neil Albrecht, executive director of Milwaukee's election commission.

With results not coming until next week, the state did not offer Mr. Biden the knockout blow he hoped for in his presidential nomination fight against Mr. Sanders. The candidates spoke out late Tuesday on separate livestreams from the safety of their homes hundreds of miles away but had little to say about the Wisconsin contest.

Mr. Sanders didn't say a word about the election on Tuesday after warning the night before that holding the election was "dangerous" and "may prove deadly." Mr. Biden, too, said in-person voting shouldn't have taken place.

Democrats accused Republicans of holding to the Tuesday election date in part to benefit from reduced turnout in the state's most populous cities, which lean Democratic. Reduced turnout there would benefit a conservative Wisconsin Supreme Court justice who is on the ballot for re-election.

Republicans defended moving ahead with the election, saying it could be done safely and that elections have not been delayed during other times of national crisis. They also argued it was important to fill thousands of local offices where terms will expire later this month.

It's too early to say how much of an effect fears over coronavirus along with all the last-minute confusion about whether the election would happen would reduce turnout. But any decline could have long-term consequences.

“If black voices are not represented in the vote and in decisions that are made by folks that are elected, their communities suffer,” said Ryeshia Farmer with the ACLU of Wisconsin. “They don't receive the same amount of resources, the same amount of funding in their communities. Long term, this will have a ripple effect.”

Keisha Robinson of Milwaukee works to mobilize voters with BLOC – Black Leaders Organizing Communities. Ms. Robinson herself requested an absentee ballot from the city on Thursday, a day before the deadline.

She had her fingers crossed that it would arrive in Tuesday’s mail. When it didn't, Ms. Robinson had to decide whether to go vote in person. Feeling scared due to her immune system that she says “is not so strong," she decided against it.

“Not being able to vote when that’s exactly what I urge and inform my community to do feels like hypocrisy” she said. “It feels like i didn’t complete my end of an important deal or something."

Lest there be any doubt about the GOP's motivation, President Donald Trump on Tuesday broke from health experts who have encouraged all Americans to stay home by calling on his supporters to "get out and vote NOW" for the conservative judicial candidate.

The unprecedented challenge created a chaotic scene across the state where voters and officials fought health risks in order to vote.

In Madison, city workers erected Plexiglas barriers to protect poll workers, and voters were encouraged to bring their own pens to mark the ballots.

Tens of thousands of voters who received absentee ballots had not returned them as of Tuesday, Mr. Albrecht said. He noted that his office received hundreds of calls from people who didn't get an absentee ballot or were concerned theirs hadn't been delivered to election officials.

Milwaukee resident Megan Nakkula was forced to vote in person after she requested an absentee ballot but didn't receive it.

"It's been a very emotional day thinking about what the outcome of this could be," she said, holding back tears. "It just doesn't feel like it was the safest decision to do. I saw a lot of elderly voters, people who were high risk and everyone is taking as many precautions as they could. We were 6 feet apart, but you know, we don't know what we don't know about this virus at this point in time, and it's really scary."

This story was reported by The Associated Press. Associated Press writers Gretchen Ehlke, Christina A. Cassidy, Carrie Antlfinger, Amy Forliti, and Doug Glass contributed to this report.

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