Wisconsin voters go to the polls in controversial election

Sam Levine
Photograph: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Wisconsin voters went to the polls on Tuesday, to cast ballots amid a global pandemic after a stunning 24-hour period in which the state’s governor tried to cancel in-person voting because of the public health risk, only to be overruled by the state supreme court.

The US supreme court weighed in hours before the polls opened to tweak election rules in the state.

Even though the Democratic race between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders is winding down, the Wisconsin contest has exploded in controversy. It is both the most significant battle so far between Republicans and Democrats over the right to vote in 2020 and a chaotic scramble to protect both the vote and public health.

Related: Revealed: Wisconsin's black and student populations at highest risk of voter purges

It is remarkable that the polls are open on Tuesday. In late March the governor, Tony Evers, issued an executive order instructing people to stay at home. There is such a severe shortage of poll workers that Evers asked the national guard to step in.

Last week, 111 jurisdictions reported not having enough poll workers to staff even one voting location. Jurisdictions are significantly limiting where people can vote. Milwaukee, which usually has 180 poll sites, will now have just five. Long lines formed on Tuesday at polling locations after polls opened, prompting fears that the election could represent a serious public health risk in the face of the virus.

The lack of polling locations in Milwaukee was particularly notable because nearly 70% of African Americans in Wisconsin live in the city. Madison, which has less than half of Milwaukee’s population, had 66 polling locations open.

The Wisconsin elections commission has declined to project turnout, but it is expected to be low. Democrats say Republicans are banking on low turnout to help Daniel Kelly, a conservative justice on the state supreme court, hold on to his seat. Wisconsin election officials will not publicly release the results of the election until 13 April, following instructions from a federal court order.

On Monday, after weeks of rebuffing efforts to delay the election, Evers issued an executive order seeking to delay in-person voting until 9 June.

Republicans, who have resisted calls to mail a ballot to every voter and ease restrictions on mail-in voting, challenged the order in the state supreme court, where conservatives hold a majority. The court overruled Evers and ordered the election to move forward. Kelly recused himself from the decision.

Robin Vos, the Republican speaker of the Wisconsin assembly, served as a poll worker on Tuesday and told people it was “incredibly safe to go out”. Vos made the comments dressed head-to-toe in protective gear, undermining his message.

Sanders, who called for the election to be delayed, said on Monday his campaign would not engage in “traditional” efforts to turn out voters, echoing the state Democratic party.

Related: Revealed: Wisconsin's black and student populations at highest risk of voter purges

The US supreme court weighed in late on Monday, upholding a lower court order extending the deadline by which mail-in ballots could be received from 7 April to 13 April.

But in a 5-4 decision, the high court accepted a request from Republicans to require ballots to be postmarked by election day, in order to count.

That rule is likely to disenfranchise thousands of voters who have not yet received ballots even though they requested them by the state’s deadline, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the four liberal justices who dissented. Nearly 10,000 voters had requested ballots but had not received them as of Tuesday morning, the Wisconsin elections commission reported. More than 400,000 voters also had yet to return their ballots, according to data released by the commission.

Several voters also reported they never received ballots, despite putting in a request weeks ago. Milwaukee resident Molly Brunner, 25, requested her absentee ballot on 18 March, but it never came. She went to the polls first thing Tuesday morning, but the line was too long, so she left and came back later. She waited about 40 minutes in line to vote.

“It just kind of boggles my mind that it’s even legal to do stuff like this,” she said. “You’re risking your life – especially like the older individuals, people with compromised immune systems – you’re risking your life in order to vote. That just should not be the case.”

Neil Albrecht, the executive director of the Milwaukee election commission, told reporters on Tuesday that the state’s election systems were unprepared to handle the surge of absentee ballot requests.

Joe Ashworth, 30, another Milwaukee resident, said he didn’t receive his ballot after requesting it in mid-March. He went to the polls on Tuesday morning and wound up waiting two hours in line to vote.

Amelia Brummond, 34, submitted her request for a ballot for herself and her husband on 12 March. Her husband’s ballot came weeks later, but hers never came. She said she tried to follow up with election officials in Milwaukee, but never got an answer. Brummond, who has five children, said she won’t go to the polls on Tuesday because it’s too risky. She wanted to vote in a school measure that was on the ballot, but won’t be able to.

“I can’t bring coronavirus into my house,” she said. “I’m just going to have to opt out.”