Wisconsin holds spring primary election amid COVID-19 pandemic
Thousands go to polls, problems arise after over one million request absentee ballots
By Jalen Maki
Tomahawk Leader Co-Editor
NORTHERN WISCONSIN – Hours after the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down Governor Tony Evers’ attempt to shut down the April 7 election due to the COVID-19 pandemic, thousands of voters went to the polls to cast their ballots.
After previously saying he did not want to delay the state’s spring primary election, Evers on Monday, April 6 issued an executive order that sought to bar in-person voting in light of poll worker shortages across the state due to fears regarding the virus. Republicans who control the State Legislature sued to block Evers’ order and stop the extension of absentee voting.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court ultimately voted to block the move and require all absentee ballots to be postmarked by April 7. The day ended with the U.S. Supreme Court deciding 5 to 4 to reverse a federal judge’s order that had extended absentee voting to April 13, resulting in thousands who hadn’t yet received their absentee ballots either going to the polls or not voting at all.
The state’s top health official issued a warning before the courts decided the election must be held as scheduled.
“In-person voting would, without question, accelerate the transmission of COVID-19 and increase the number of cases,” Wisconsin Department of Health Services Secretary Andrea Palm said. “And an increase in the number of cases in Wisconsin would result in more deaths.”
As of Sunday, April 12, 525,704 people in the United States had been infected with COVID-19, and 20,486 had died, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Wisconsin, 3,341 people had contracted the virus, including none in Lincoln County, six in Oneida, one in Price and four in Vilas. 144 deaths had been reported in the state, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. None of those deaths occurred in Lincoln, Oneida, Price or Vilas counties.
Absentee ballot issues
The Wisconsin Elections Commission said 1,287,827 absentee ballots had been requested in the state by Monday, April 6, with 1,003,422 having been returned to clerks as of 7:30 a.m. on Wednesday, April 8.
Several media outlets reported that voters across the state had never received their requested ballots. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel said over 50 people had contacted the publication “reporting issues getting their ballots by mail as clerks became overwhelmed with requests. Some say clerks don’t even have a record of voters’ ballot requests.”
Scott Botcher, Manager of the Village of Fox Point in Milwaukee County, told PBS Wisconsin that absentee ballots requested by voters there were inexplicably undelivered by the United States Postal Service prior to the election. Botcher said 175 ballots had been returned to his village’s office.
“The ballots are not stamped undeliverable or anything,” Botcher stated. “They just never got mailed.”
In a Tweet on Wednesday, April 8, State Senator Dan Freyen (R-Fond du Lac) said he had been informed that a postal worker had told the Wisconsin Elections Commission that “3 large tubs of absentee ballots from Oshkosh and Appleton” had been located and that he was “working hard to try to remedy the situation.”
In a letter from Thursday, April 9, U.S. Senators Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) urged Inspector General of the U.S. Postal Service Tammy Whitcomb to investigate the reports of irregularities regarding absentee ballots.
“Unfortunately, there have been numerous accounts from the state that USPS failed to fulfill that critical function for some voters,” the letter stated. After citing examples of issues regarding the ballots, the Senators expressed their concern that there may have been more problems in the state and urged Whitcomb to open an investigation “to determine the cause of these failures, which appear to have disenfranchised many Wisconsin voters.”
“As the COVID-19 crisis continues and as more voters are likely to request to vote by mail where available, this year’s forthcoming elections will require that USPS’s existing vote-by-mail procedures are strictly and effectively followed,” the Senators said. “It is critical that you quickly identify what has gone wrong and propose solutions that USPS can swiftly implement.”