In Wisconsin, election goes on despite the coronavirus pandemic

A woman in a teal jacket sits at a polling space
Lynette Glaus casts a vote in the Wisconsin presidential preference election at a polling place in Superior, Wis., Tuesday.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

Betty Bockovich loves to vote. The 49-year-old karate instructor from Superior, Wis., hasn’t missed an election since she was 18.

But she was not happy about having to visit a polling place in person Tuesday — in the midst of the global coronavirus pandemic and while her state is under a stay-at-home order in its attempts to tamp that pandemic down. Bockovich was thinking about her daughter, who has severe medical issues.

“It’s like I have to decide between my daughter’s health and my right to vote, which I don’t think I should be in a position to do," she said.

A woman with a mask on fills out a poll on a clip board
Richard Kaufman, a volunteer election official for the city of Superior, helped Betty Bockovich cast a vote at a curbside voting station outside the city's government center Tuesday.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

Bockovich said she hasn't even visited the grocery store because she doesn’t want to risk bringing the virus home. But she wasn't going to miss the chance to vote for Bernie Sanders in Wisconsin’s presidential preference vote.

"I felt I was kind of forced to because this election is so important, and I need my voice to be heard, and I’ve never missed an election since I was 18," she said.

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers issued an executive order Monday afternoon that would postpone the election. Less than four hours later, the state Supreme Court sided with Republicans, who said Evers didn’t have the authority to reschedule the race on his own.

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Conservative justices on the U.S. Supreme Court quickly followed with a 5-4 ruling that overturned a lower court’s decision expanding the state’s absentee voting period.

That meant Wisconsin voters’ absentee ballots would have to be postmarked by Tuesday — or they would have to go to the polls in person.

An overhead view of workers sitting at tables and pylons providing spacing
Poll workers used construction tape and orange traffic cones to create aisles to help voters maintain proper social distancing at a polling place set up at the government center in Superior Tuesday.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

The city of Superior took steps to try to make sure people could vote safely. It even set up a curbside voting option in which people ring a doorbell that summons election workers to their cars.

Bockovich took advantage of that service Tuesday morning at the city government center downtown. Election official Richard Kaufman, wearing a mask and orange rubber gloves, greeted Bockovich, then brought her a ballot.

"You get to keep that pen, it's free with every vote!” he told her. “When you're done [with your ballot], I'll run it back in, stick it in the machine, and make sure it's accepted."

A woman stands near construction tape an cones with a face mask on.
Melanie Sternberg volunteered to work at a polling place in Superior during Wisconsin's local elections and presidential preference primary Tuesday.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

Inside, election officers used yellow construction tape and orange cones to set up makeshift aisles to help people keep proper social distancing.

Liane Britton filled in as election inspector for someone who didn't want to venture outside. Most of the regular poll workers, who are seniors and more vulnerable to the coronavirus, chose not to volunteer this election.

"The majority of the people working with me today are new. The normal workers are at the risk ages, so they decided to stay home,” she said. “A lot of people are wearing masks. People are a little nervous, but taking precautions that they’re supposed to take."

Those precautions include disinfecting tables and chairs immediately after people voted. By 10 a.m. only about 50 people had shown up.

"It’s not as busy,” Britton said. “A lot less people than normal. Normally, we’d have people waiting in line."

Superior Mayor Jim Paine said 4,300 people in the city had requested absentee ballots. As of Tuesday morning, 3,300 had turned them in.

"This is a historically high number,” he said. “We've never seen anything like that. On the whole, it’s a good thing. Personally, I hope that this changes the landscape of elections.”

But the rush of requests for absentee ballots overwhelmed the city clerk’s office, he said. And while Paine said city and county officials were prepared, and he felt the election could be held safely, he nonetheless wasn’t happy about in-person voting.

"We are exposing ourselves to a great deal of risk. While I think we have taken the measures that we needed to take, this is still going to be a pretty risky day for us,” he said at a news conference Tuesday.

He also said it's confusing for voters. With less than a day to go, no one knew whether in-person voting would happen at all.

Lynette Glaus of Superior said that confusion was frustrating. But she showed up at the polling place anyway, wearing a face mask, to cast her vote for President Trump.

“I wasn’t nervous about it,” she said. “I wouldn’t wear this mask if I wasn’t told to,” she added, laughing, before saying, seriously, “It’s a privilege and a right and everybody should vote."

Glaus said she's voted in every election since Eisenhower was elected president in 1956. And she wasn't going to let a global pandemic stop her this year.

COVID-19 in Minnesota

Health officials for weeks have been increasingly raising the alarm over the spread of the novel coronavirus in the United States. The disease is transmitted through respiratory droplets, coughs and sneezes, similar to the way the flu can spread.

Government and medical leaders are urging people to wash their hands frequently and well, refrain from touching their faces, cover their coughs, disinfect surfaces and avoid large crowds, all in an effort to curb the virus’ rapid spread.

The state of Minnesota has temporarily closed schools, while administrators work to determine next steps, and is requiring a temporary closure of all in-person dining at restaurants, bars and coffee shops, as well as theaters, gyms, yoga studios and other spaces in which people congregate in close proximity.