WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Shavonda Sisson said she requested a mail ballot to vote in Tuesday's Democratic primary election in Wisconsin well ahead of the election.
When it failed to arrive, the Milwaukee resident decided not to risk voting in person. Sisson, a 39-year-old African American, feared her asthma would make her vulnerable to the deadly coronavirus now sweeping the country. And she expressed anger that other voters, especially in the hard-hit black community, had to make the same tough choice.
"Having to make that decision between their life and their vote, it's heartbreaking," Sisson said.
Sisson is among potentially thousands of Wisconsin’s nearly 3.4 million registered voters who could not vote by mail or in person in Tuesday’s elections that went forward despite the coronavirus pandemic, according to data from state election officials, voting rights advocates who heard from people who never received a ballot, and Reuters interviews with more than a dozen Wisconsin residents who were unable to vote.
Conservative-leaning courts overturned a decree by Wisconsin’s Democratic Governor Tony Evers to postpone the election and extend absentee voting. Evers issued a statewide stay-at-home order on March 25 to combat the virus, which has killed more than 14,000 people nationwide, at least 95 of them in Wisconsin.
The drama in Wisconsin foreshadows legal battles and political showdowns looming in upcoming primaries across the country, and heading into the all-important November presidential election, as the worst public health crisis in a century upends voting, Democratic officials, non-partisan voter advocates and election watchdogs say.
They are particularly concerned about the potential impact in closely fought battlegrounds such as Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, whose contests were decided in Republican President Donald Trump’s favor by razor-thin margins in 2016.
Nearly 1.3 million Wisconsin voters applied for absentee ballots for Tuesday's elections in the midst of the pandemic, more than the total number of votes cast in the 2016 Democratic primary, according to the Wisconsin Election Commission.
More than 1 million of those ballots have already been returned, the commission said. Others will keep trickling in. Votes from Tuesday's election will not be tallied until after April 13, the deadline for mail-in ballots to arrive at local election offices.
Some local officials tasked with handling absentee-ballot applications acknowledged to Reuters and on social media that they were overwhelmed by the surge. More than 1,900 voters reported they never received their requested ballots, according to A Better Wisconsin Together, a progressive nonprofit group that asked voters to report missing ballots. Reuters could not independently verify these numbers.
Meagan Wolfe, administrator of the Wisconsin Elections Commission, told reporters on Wednesday the commission had no way to know how many voters may not have received their ballots in time, since it was up to municipal clerks to send out the ballots.
"We've heard of ballot mailing issues from a number of communities," said Wolfe, who added there was “no remedy in the law” for voters who did not receive their ballots in time.
Last-ditch efforts by Democrats and voting rights groups to give voters more time were opposed by the Republican-majority state legislature and in court appeals filed by the party’s lawyers. Wisconsin Republican officials said Evers didn't have the right to delay the elections, and they said voters should be able to cast ballots in person if they chose.
"We want to have elections on the day we pick," Robin Vos, the Republican speaker of Wisconsin's Assembly, told a local TV station on Tuesday while dressed in a surgical mask, gloves and a plastic gown at a polling site. "Let people choose their leaders, and then they'll get the chance to deal with the virus."
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Monday that only ballots postmarked by Tuesday would be counted. That decision meant voters who didn’t receive their ballots in the mail by Election Day had to vote in person.
NEW CHALLENGES IN VIRUS-ERA VOTING
Democratic leaders have called for expanding mail balloting amid their fears that coronavirus will continue keeping voters at home this year. That push is meeting strong resistance from Republicans nationwide, from the White House to elected officials in Republican-governed states such as Texas, Georgia and Ohio.
Texas, for example, is one of 15 states requiring voters to provide an excuse, such as disability or advanced age, when requesting an absentee ballot. An April 2 advisory to election officials from the Secretary of State noted that Texas’ election code defines “disability” to include conditions that would jeopardize voters’ health if they voted in person. But the advisory did not specify that voters practicing social distancing could be eligible under this definition.
The Democratic Party sued Texas’s Republican leadership in federal court on Tuesday to force the state to allow no-excuse absentee voting. The state has not yet responded to the complaint.
On Wednesday, the American Civil Liberties Union sued Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in federal court over that state’s absentee ballot rules. The complaint alleged that requiring voters to pay their own postage when submitting mail-in absentee ballots and absentee ballot applications was tantamount to a poll tax.
The state has not yet responded to the complaint. On Monday, Raffensperger said his office was committed to ensuring every vote counted, while holding a press conference to announce a new task force dedicated to combating mail-in ballot fraud.
Democratic leaders said what happened in Wisconsin is a warning to the rest of the country.
“They (Republicans) don't want to see any expanded ballot access in the emergency that could impact the election in November or set a precedent going forward,” said Gordon Hintz, the state’s minority leader. “It’s not just a Wisconsin thing." Hintz said he himself was unable to vote on Tuesday because he did not receive his absentee ballot.
He and other Democrats allege Wisconsin Republicans did not want to extend voting out of belief that a depressed turnout, especially in Democratic-dominated urban centers such as Milwaukee, would help elect Dan Kelly, a conservative Wisconsin Supreme Court judge up for election who was endorsed by Trump over a liberal challenger, Jill Karofsky.
The winner could be in position to cast a vote on a case now before the court that seeks to purge more than 200,000 people from Wisconsin’s voter rolls.
Republicans said that expanding access to mail-in ballots would increase fraud, an assertion that has been repeated frequently by Trump. Virtually no independent evidence has emerged to support such claims.
Before the pandemic, Republicans were seeking to tighten voting rules in states around the country. Democrats say such efforts disproportionately affect people of color and the poor.
The coronavirus health crisis, and the possibility that millions of Americans could be left out unless given safe voting alternatives, have added urgency to the debate.
If state legislatures do not expand mail-in voting soon, legal challenges like the ones that resulted in Wisconsin’s chaotic primary will be waged right up until the presidential election, said Sylvia Albert, director of voting and elections for Common Cause, a nonpartisan watchdog group.
“What you saw in Wisconsin would be happening in November,” Albert said.
Few states are as potentially pivotal to the outcome as Wisconsin. In 2016, Trump beat Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton by fewer than 23,000 votes, less than a percentage point, in part thanks to a low turnout in heavily Democratic cities such as Milwaukee.
The state is expected to be one of the most closely fought battlegrounds between Trump and his Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden.
Wisconsin has some of the nation’s most stringent voting laws, including a requirement that a voter must have a photo ID with a current address, or an ID and acceptable proof of residency, such as a recent utility bill.
Virus-era voting has presented new challenges. While demand for mail ballots in Wisconsin surged after the stay-at-home order, polling locations were slashed for want of workers to staff them. More than half of Wisconsin’s municipalities reported shortages of poll workers, prompting the state to call up 2,400 National Guard troops to assist.
In Milwaukee, a city of nearly 600,000 people that is home to most of Wisconsin’s African Americans, only five polling places were open on Tuesday, a fraction of the usual 180 locations, according to the city’s election commission.
Meanwhile, existing requirements for absentee voting remained intact. In addition to a copy of an accepted ID, Wisconsin requires absentee voters to send a signed statement from a witness along with their ballot.
Rick Esenberg, founder of the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, a conservative law and policy organization, said it was important to have rules in place to stop fraud in absentee voting.
“When you don’t have the checks that normally exist at an in-person polling place, this is an effort to retain some valid security,” Esenberg said.
Wisconsin’s rules upended mail-in balloting for Jill Swenson, 61, a former smoker who lives alone and has quarantined herself to avoid contracting the novel virus.
She mailed in her ballot without a witness on Friday, after a federal district court for Wisconsin ruled that the witness requirement would be relaxed due to the pandemic. That ruling was overturned by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals a day later, making her ballot void.
“I have been completely disenfranchised in this election,” Swenson said. “I followed all the rules. This is ridiculous.”
Some voters who did not receive their mail-in ballots by Tuesday decided to vote in person. Among them was Jessica Jaglowski, 47, who is now second-guessing her decision.
A stay-at-home mom with three sons, including one with compromised lungs, Jaglowski stood outside Riverside High School in Milwaukee in a 7-block long line for two hours, then got inside, only to find another 100 people inside.
“I just thought, ‘This is too many people,’” Jaglowski said. "I was worried, 'What if I bring this (virus) home?'"
The Republican National Committee, which had opposed the Wisconsin governor’s efforts to simplify absentee voting procedures, vowed to continue resisting Democrats’ efforts to expand vote-by-mail nationwide.
“Democrats are attempting to use this crisis as a way to get wholesale election changes that fit their far-left agenda,” said the group's spokeswoman Mandi Merritt.
(Reporting by Simon Lewis and Julia Harte; Additional reporting by John Whitesides; Editing by Soyoung Kim and Marla Dickerson)
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