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Wisconsin voted Tuesday in the midst of a pandemic that shuttered polling places and funneled voters into long lines and highly trafficked polling stations. In Milwaukee, which normally has 180 polling places, only five opened their doors.
The primary election happened after a high-stakes and fast-moving battle between the Democratic governor and Republicans in the legislature. On Monday, Gov. Tony Evers ordered the election delayed until June. Republicans immediately protested, taking the matter to the state Supreme Court, which quickly blocked Evers’ order. Less than an hour later, the U.S. Supreme Court hit voters again, discarding tens of thousands of absentee ballots that were not mailed out in time. Wisconsinites who hadn’t received their ballots in time would instead have to cast their votes in person.
On Tuesday, as much of the rest of the country sheltered in place, many Wisconsin voters left their homes to congregate at polling places. Many others, unwilling to take on such a risk, stayed home.
Slate spoke to five voters who went to their polling places on Tuesday to ask them what it was like to vote during a pandemic. They are:
David Meyer, 29, the front desk coordinator of a hotel (currently shut down) in Green Bay.
Nicole Winters, 50, the Milwaukee-based operations manager for the civic engagement nonprofit Wisconsin Voices.
Dwayne, 25, an employee at a dairy company in Madison (who declined to give his last name in order to speak freely without worrying about his employer’s approval).
John Marszalkowski, 38, a stay-at-home father of two in Milwaukee.
Mia Noel, 35, the program manager of a youth health education organization in Milwaukee.
Their answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.
Slate: How did you end up voting in person today?
David: I had been following along with other states in the Midwest. A lot of those states had been pushing back their election dates, so I figured ours would get pushed back until it’s a safer time. And I [didn’t request a mail-in ballot] because I’m more in favor of in-person voting, seeing it go into the machine.
Nicole: I want to go in person because the last election, when I went to my voting site, the doors were locked and I did not get to cast my vote. So I made it a point: Today, I would go in person if it was allowed.
Dwayne: I requested [my absentee ballot] online last week. They immediately said I needed to submit a voter ID. I am already a registered voter. I voted twice already in Wisconsin. So I digitally submitted my ID. I got mail Monday night saying that they did not accept my ID. I used my driver’s license—I’m from Louisiana [originally]—and they told me an out-of-state driver’s license is not a valid form of ID, but I could still vote at a county clerk’s office or a polling place.
John: On March 20, I filled out [the request] for the absentee ballot because I figured that’s the safest way to do this. In Milwaukee, we had some options last weekend where you could go downtown and vote from your car. But I thought, well, the safest thing is if my ballot is in the mail. So I stayed home. And it never showed.
Mia: I requested an absentee ballot in the middle of March, and it never came. I tried to do the drive-up early voting in Milwaukee. But the line for that was eight blocks long. I had an argument with my partner about voting in person. He said, “It’s not just you, it’s also me.” But the thing for me is there’s stuff on the ballot I wanted to participate in. Increased public school funding. Local county executive races and the mayoral race. It was still important for me to vote.
What was the voting process like?
David: Green Bay is a city of about 105,000 people, and there were two polling precincts today. It was a really long process to get from start to finish. I arrived at 8:54 a.m. and left at 11:34. When I left, people were waiting in a far longer line. So they’re looking at at least four-, maybe five-hour wait times to go vote. There were a couple people around me that left. One gentleman had to catch a bus, and another was an essential worker who had to get to work. [An election official at one point] offered the older people to come inside to sit, as long as they remembered their place in line.
Most of us brought our own pens; that was the recommendation, that you bring your own black or blue pen from home. And then they had a large wooden or plexiglass-constructed thing that looked like it had been built for the sole purpose of voting today. You would place your identification on the outside of the plexiglass, and the workers inside went through the rolls and saw what ward you were in, and we would go to our assigned area that had the ballot for our particular ward. And then we had one person come through and sanitize the area after people left. There were probably about 10 poll workers there in total. For a city of our size, that’s not a lot.
Nicole: When I got there, there was a note on the door that said I had to go to a different location 2.3 miles away. Parking was not very easy. I walked around the whole school grounds to get to where we had to go in and vote. But the line did go fast. There were people outside that directed you where to go to get registered and asked you if you knew your ward. If not, they looked your address up. They were passing out gloves and ink pens. When we got inside, they would call you up and have you lay your ID on the table. They did wipe them down after every person, and they did have on masks and gloves. I didn’t touch anything other than putting my ballot on the desk to fill it out. It maybe took 45 minutes to an hour.
Dwayne: It was not very busy. I live in downtown Madison, which is a pretty enfranchised area. Pretty white, pretty middle-class. They had a lot of workers. They looked me up—I was in the voter registration book. And I gave them my ID. They were like, “We cannot accept that.” I brought my birth certificate, my Social Security card, and a bill that goes to my address. I voted here before, with the same people. So I didn’t understand why it’s a problem. I don’t know why they’re being more strict about it. I was basically turned around until one of the poll workers called the municipal clerk and got more information. They said I could vote and then have a couple days to get an ID. The problem with that is the DMV is very far away. The other places where I could get an ID are closed right now because of the shutdown. So it was very inconvenient. I felt disenfranchised.
John: I arrived shortly after 8 a.m. I was outside for a long time, and then there was a line going down the high school hallway and back up. The woman in front of me in line was visibly exhausted, bracing herself on the walls, grabbing anything she can to take weight off her feet. People are just crammed in this low-ventilation hallway, no windows or anything. They had X’s taped on the floor to try to indicate 6 feet apart. Six feet seems like a lot until you cram 100 people in a hallway.
Once I got through the line, there were a lot of volunteers. They were very friendly and patient. They were working hard to keep the tables clean. They had people with disinfectant bottles, and they were wiping down the tables where you showed your ID, but I didn’t notice them wiping down the booths. After turning in my ballot, they offered me some hand sanitizer on the way out.
Mia: I got ready to face being in line for hours around other people. I put on gloves and a mask. You had to park far away and walk to the end of the line between six and seven blocks from the polling station. By the time we got to the front, the high school gym was very orderly. They had X’s so everyone would stay 6 feet apart. The poll workers did a great job at making sure we were as safe as possible. All poll workers had some sort of protective equipment. The whole process was smooth. It took me about 2½ hours to [vote].
How do you feel coming out of the experience? Did you at any point think you might not vote?
David: I think it’s pretty embarrassing. They were putting political power way ahead of human well-being and human life. I hope and pray that nobody gets sick and dies from our election taking place today.
I had the mindset that no matter how long the wait was, no matter what the weather situation was, I would vote because I felt like it was an active choice that a group of people made to try to suppress votes and to try to minimize the voice of the people in Wisconsin. And I didn’t think that was OK.
Nicole: It wasn’t bad. It was good to see people out voting.
Dwayne: I felt really bad. I’m an essential worker. I ride transit every day to work. I didn’t want to expose more vulnerable people to what I’m already being exposed to at work. So I had this thing in the back of mind: “What other precautions do I have to take to go do this thing that I really want to do, which is vote?”
I really didn’t like that I had to make that choice. It was deeply painful. But this seemed like it was important enough to risk. I’m an African American. I’m originally from the South. I have family who fought for enfranchisement for so long. I know my people’s history with voting rights. I know the electoral process can be disheartening at times, I know that it is not the only way to effect change, but I think it has a deep and symbolic meaning to black people in general. And I think it means a lot to see us at the polls. I feel empowered when I go.
John: It was very frustrating, because I’ve been working so hard—my whole family’s been working hard—to stay home, social distance, avoid going to the store, and do everything I can to do what I’m supposed to do. And [yet] I also have this sense of civic duty to participate in the election.
Mia: I’m still just very frustrated that this happened. I hope there’s not a spike in cases after this. I’m worried I could be part of that. I’ve been working so hard to stay home and make sure our health care system has a chance to cope with any cases that come up. And then to be forced into an unfair decision about whether to leave is frustrating. I’m really angry.
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