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This article is made possible through Votebeat, a nonpartisan reporting project covering local election integrity and voting access.
With nearly 2 million Wisconsin ballots already cast, hundreds of thousands of voters ventured from their homes Tuesday in the midst of a raging pandemic to finalize the state’s judgment on the next president — and help cement the nation’s future for the next four years.
In 2016, voters from three states — Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — handed Republican Donald Trump a narrow victory over Hillary Clinton. This time, former Democratic Vice President Joe Biden appeared better positioned to compete for Wisconsin’s 10 electoral votes. And the weather was unseasonably mild, with high temperatures around the state from the mid-50s to the mid-60s and no rain in sight.
Related content: Wisconsin votes: Portraits from the polls
Wisconsin Watch reporter Nora Eckert talks about how the election played on the Axios Re:Cap podcast on Nov. 4.
But the pandemic continued to cast a shadow over Tuesday’s voting as state health officials reported a record 5,771 new COVID-19 cases and another 52 deaths, bringing the statewide death toll to 2,102. And as voters gathered at the polls, Wisconsinites elsewhere lined up to be tested for the disease. Wait times for free testing the Alliant Energy Center in Madison eclipsed three hours early Tuesday afternoon.
To underscore Wisconsin’s national importance, Trump on Monday night made his penultimate campaign stop here, telling supporters at the Kenosha Regional Airport that “you’re the ones that put us over the top.” The city was the site of destructive protests sparked by the police shooting of Jacob Blake in August, culminating in the deaths of two protesters — shot by a teenage vigilante from Illinois whom some conservatives portray as a hero.
Unlike in April, most municipalities opened a full set of polling places and installed an estimated 500 drop boxes to facilitate return of absentee ballots as many voters sought to avoid the U.S. Postal Service, which has suffered from delayed deliveries and lost ballots in 2020.
Two federal judges ordered the U.S. Postal Service to scour facilities in Wisconsin and several other states to ensure there were no remaining absentee ballots to be delivered to clerks’ offices. Attorneys for the Postal Service reported Tuesday afternoon that inspectors general were on the ground in Green Bay, Madison and Milwaukee to ensure compliance and that sweeps of the facilities had turned up no errant ballots.
“We had a safe voting experience and very minimal issues, and it was a very good day here in the city of Milwaukee for voting,” said Claire Woodall-Vogg, executive director of the Milwaukee Election Commission.
About 169,000 absentee ballots were cast in Milwaukee, roughly two-thirds of which were processed as of 8 p.m. Woodall-Vogg expected counting to last until about 4 a.m.
Wisconsin Elections Commission Administrator Meagan Wolfe said there were no reports of serious poll worker shortages or specific threats to voting sites. Wolfe added that there were shortages of ballots in some small jurisdictions but the respective counties dealt with the shortages.
Nationwide, Election Day overall went smoothly, said Tammy Patrick of the nonpartisan Democracy Fund. Patrick credited the “dedication and fortitude of election officials,” who provided flexible options including absentee voting.
“While some cast doubt on the integrity of our electoral process, others stood up and said ‘not on my watch,’ ” she said.
Knocking on doors, rounding up voters
Ahead of this election, activists including Melody McCurtis and Danell Cross called their Metcalfe Park neighbors and knocked on their doors — one of several efforts to mobilize people of color in Milwaukee who disproportionately sat out the election four years ago.
As polling sites opened Tuesday, Democratic state Rep. David Bowen of Milwaukee met with members of Black Leaders Organizing for Communities, which deployed 73 people to call voters and monitor for intimidation at the city’s polling places. Said Bowen: “I’ve seen and felt this energy that I haven’t seen in my lifetime.”
But there was apprehension as well. BLOC Executive Director Angela Lang told Wisconsin Watch that one of the group’s online accounts was hacked early Tuesday morning, the latest in a series of “scary” attacks on Black leaders and groups this election season.
At the Hayes Bilingual Elementary School on Milwaukee’s south side, chief inspector Joe Dannecker said his polling site was combined with another nearby after two workers at the other site came down with COVID-19. Dannecker joked that he, his wife Mary and their two adult children decided to spend time together on the couple’s 30th anniversary — by working at the polls.
Wisconsin voters more than doubled the 830,763 absentee ballots cast in the 2016 general election. As hospitals filled up with people infected with COVID-19, about 1.3 million voters in Wisconsin mailed in their ballots and another 650,000 avoided crowds by casting early in-person absentee votes.
The labor-intensive work of processing absentee ballots means some of 1,850 clerks who run Wisconsin’s elections will still be counting them at least into Wednesday. Wisconsin is among the few states that ban poll workers from processing absentee ballots until Election Day, while clerks elsewhere get a head start.
The Madison City Clerk’s Office said it had processed 121,207 absentee ballots cast in Wisconsin’s second largest city —with a reported 82% voter turnout.
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett told reporters that absentee balloting was three times the volume of 2016.
“We could not have a better day to get out and vote,” Barrett said, adding, “Every vote is going to be significant.”
First-time voter ‘emotional’
That was especially true for Rutilia Ornelas of West Allis. Ornelas, 65, became a U.S. citizen on Monday. The next day, she voted for the first time at Lane Intermediate School, which she described through an interpreter as a “very emotional” moment. Said her daughter, Paola Espinoza: “I’m very proud of her … she accomplished what she’s wanted to since a long time.”
At Milwaukee’s central vote counting facility, machines buzzed and clicked loudly as 400 workers opened absentee ballots and fed them into the counters. Boxes of ballots were stacked up within pods designed to keep workers socially distant. Election observers milled about the hall, some taking notes. Workers waved yellow fans to alert election officials to questions about how to handle ballots.
Poll workers in the Fox River Valley faced an added burden: remaking as many as 13,500 completed absentee ballots by hand because of a tiny printing flaw that prevents tabulating machines from reading them.
It’s a scratch no wider than a fingernail, but created headaches for clerks in 22 municipalities in Outagamie and Calumet counties. The small tick in the black boxes at the bottom of these ballots causes machines to spit them back out with an “error” message.
Election workers discovered the problem in time to correct early in-person and Election Day ballots — but only after thousands of absentee ballots were mailed to voters.
The Wisconsin Elections Commission said it did not have the authority to advise municipalities on how to handle the misprint — or to extend the deadline for counting ballots. A divided Wisconsin Supreme Court also declined to give guidance or a reprieve.
At Appleton’s Mount Olive Evangelical Lutheran School polling site, chief inspector Sue Siebers waited to start processing absentee ballots until about four hours into the day. Before then, lines were out the door, with wait times creeping up to an hour and a half, she said.
“I didn’t feel right doing (the absentee ballots) until the line was in the door,” she said, adding that her polling place had around 100 ballots with the error.
But in Grand Chute, the laborious process of copying votes from about 2,000 ballots over to new ballots was nearly completed by late afternoon. Unlike Appleton, the town centralized its ballot counting. Poll worker Maureen Armstrong — dressed as Wonder Woman to lighten the mood — said it took about 3 minutes per ballot, with two people working on each one.
“It breaks my heart a little bit” to think of the time spent fixing ballots, Armstrong said. But she was impressed by the level of accountability built into each step of the process. “I got a lot of confidence from today.”
Calling in the National Guard — and nuns
To meet a potential shortage of poll workers during the pandemic, Evers for the third time this year mobilized the Wisconsin National Guard. Between 200 and 300 guard members — dressed in civilian clothing — were on call to fill election jobs including sanitizing polling places and encouraging social distancing to avoid spreading the coronavirus. Guard members also helped remake ballots in Outagamie and Calumet counties.
The state’s polarized politics has played a role throughout 2020, making Wisconsin one of the nation’s COVID-19 hotspots — and paralyzing the Wisconsin Elections Commission at key moments. A deluge of disinformation has also washed over Wisconsin residents, aiming to sway their choice for president.
Speaking at a mid-Tuesday press briefing, Green Bay Police Chief Andrew Smith warned of social media posts falsely claiming the city had surreptitiously removed voting machines from polling places — claims that could lead voters to to mistakenly believe they were closed.
Green Bay planned weeks ago to move its central ballot counting location, but social media posts instead claimed the city was suddenly pulling voting machines from polling places. “That’s baloney,” Smith said in a press conference recorded by WBAY-TV. “We were planning on (moving the central count) a long time ago. That was announced publicly on the website.”
Voters at several polling sites complained that workers were not wearing masks, as the Wisconsin Elections Commission had advised. Wolfe said she had heard a handful of complaints, but the problem was not “widespread.”
In addition to helping elect the president, voters decided races for 99 Assembly districts, 16 state Senate districts, district attorneys for Wisconsin’s 72 counties and the state’s eight U.S. House members.
Meanwhile, some residents offered relief at the polls to cut the tension. including participants in the national nonpartisan Joy to the Polls movement, which brought music to Milwaukee.
And members of the spiritual group Nuns and Nones doled out candy and blessings to voters at polling places in Racine, Kenosha and Milwaukee.
“It’s not like polling places have an inherently positive connotation,” Paige Ingram said at a stop in Milwaukee. But with the nuns around? “People feel like there’s a little extra blessing in this place.”
Wisconsin Watch’s Nora Eckert, Anya van Wagtendonk, Vanessa Swales, Sharon McGowan and Dee J. Hall contributed to this report. The nonprofit Wisconsin Watch (wisconsinwatch.org) collaborates with WPR, PBS Wisconsin, other news media and the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.