Defiant Wisconsin holds election during virus crisis

Kamil Krzaczynski, with Michael Mathes in Washington
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The US state of Wisconsin defied public health concerns and held its presidential primary as scheduled on April 7 with voters and poll workers risking exposure to the coronavirus

The US state of Wisconsin defied public health concerns and held its presidential primary as scheduled on April 7 with voters and poll workers risking exposure to the coronavirus (AFP Photo/KAMIL KRZACZYNSKI)

Milwaukee (AFP) - Wisconsin held its presidential primary as planned Tuesday, contradicting a state-wide stay-at-home order and defying concern that the election could expose thousands of voters and poll workers to the coronavirus.

Long lines, shuttered polling stations and workers in hazmat suits marked the most unsettling and confounding contest of the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination race: a vote at the height of a deadly pandemic.

After polls closed, it became clear that results from the primary, featuring frontrunner former vice president Joe Biden and leftist Senator Bernie Sanders, would not be released for days, perhaps until next Monday, due to large numbers of mail-in ballots.

Democratic officials had sought to postpone the election but were overruled by the top state court.

The US Supreme Court also intervened, barring an extension of mail-in voting that would have allowed more people to cast ballots without voting in person.

Both courts have conservative majorities.

With the Midwestern state ignoring calls to postpone the primary, as 15 other states have done, many Wisconsinites were being forced into an agonizing decision: risk their health to exercise their democratic right, or stay safe by staying at home.

"My gut is that we shouldn't have had the election in the first place, the in-person election," Biden told CNN after seeing images of mask-clad people standing in long voting lines.

In Milwaukee, voter options were drastically reduced due to a shortage of election staff.

The city of 600,000 normally has some 180 polling locations open, but that number reportedly shrank to just five, creating brutally long lines in an era of social distancing.

Wait times soared in Milwaukee, where one woman in line held up a cardboard sign bearing a message reading: "THIS IS RIDICULOUS."

At a Milwaukee polling station, staff set up lanes where some people could vote from their cars.

The vote has prompted scenes unimaginable just three months ago, including elections chief inspector Mary Magdalen Moser clad in hazmat gear as she operated her polling station in Kenosha.

More than 2,500 people have tested positive for coronavirus in Wisconsin and 92 have died. The nationwide death toll has topped 12,800.

- 'Be safe' -

President Donald Trump urged voters to "be safe," as he encouraged them to support a Republican candidate for the state's Supreme Court.

But he also blamed Democratic Governor Tony Evers for fomenting the chaos, although it was Evers' efforts to postpone the vote and expand vote-by-mail options that were overturned.

The pandemic has raised concerns about in-person voting in November's general election.

Democrats are seeking additional federal funding to ensure all states broaden absentee voting options, but Trump branded the vote-by-mail process "corrupt," without citing evidence.

"There are forgeries in many cases. It's a horrible thing," he told reporters Tuesday at the White House, before admitting that he himself used an absentee ballot to vote in Florida's primary this year.

Sanders, 78, opposed holding the primary as scheduled, warning on Tuesday that proceeding with the vote amid the outbreak is "dangerous... and may very well prove deadly."

The 77-year-old Biden sees Wisconsin, where he tops Sanders in polling, as an opportunity to extend his lead for the nomination. Before Tuesday he had refrained from publicly calling for the primary's postponement, saying it was up to local officials to decide.

Inside Kenosha's Journey Church, voters wearing masks and gloves stood behind a plexiglass barrier. Staff repeatedly cleaned voting machines.

Wisconsin forged ahead with its primary after the Democratic governor's bids to delay the election were thwarted by the Republican-led state legislature.

When Evers sought to postpone in-person voting to June 9, the state Supreme Court overrode the order.

Evers then moved to expand absentee voting by allowing mail-in ballots to be postmarked several days after the election.

But in an 11th-hour ruling, the US Supreme Court voted 5-4 along ideological lines to require all ballots be postmarked by Tuesday.

The decision sparked claims by Democrats of disenfranchisement because thousands of voters had yet to receive their mail-in ballots.