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Key swing state Wisconsin opens in-person voting as Covid cases hit record-breaking spike

Updated 11:58 AM ET, Tue October 20, 2020

(CNN) - The key presidential battleground of Wisconsin kicks off early voting Tuesday -- just as the state is grappling with a record number of Covid-19 cases, a stark echo of the state's chaotic April primary in the midst of shelter-in-place restrictions.

That election went forward over Democratic Gov. Tony Evers' objections after the state Supreme Court rejected his effort to delay the primary due to coronavirus, and the US Supreme Court reversed a lower court allowing extra days for voters to return ballots by mail. The resulting election was marred by widespread reports of problems with absentee ballots, a dire shortage of poll workers, lines that stretched for hours at some polling places and warnings that voting may have ended up spreading coronavirus.

State and local election officials said they've learned from the problems that hampered the primary and are better prepared for the November election. But the two-week early voting period begins Tuesday as the state's coronavirus case rates are setting records. Johns Hopkins University reported a record of 3,861 new cases on Friday, which beat the previous record of 3,743 set just a day earlier.

US Surgeon General Jerome Adams warned on Friday that Wisconsin was a Covid-19 "red state" with a rising positivity rate. "Cases are in the red, going in the wrong direction," he said.

A state judge on Monday revived Evers' order limiting in-person gatherings, though the order includes an exemption for polling places.

Beyond voting concerns related to coronavirus, the state's laws dictate that absentee ballots cannot begin to be counted until Election Day, making Wisconsin one of two battleground states, along with Pennsylvania, where the absentee ballot count may delay the result of the presidential race for several days after November 3.

Even the deadline for the state's absentee ballots remains up in the air. A federal judge ruled last month that Wisconsin could tally mail-in ballots postmarked by Election Day if they arrived up to six days later. But an appeals court panel blocked that decision this month, ruling in favor of the Republican-led Legislature, and Democratic groups have appealed to the Supreme Court.

Wisconsin was one of three Rust Belt states that gave President Donald Trump the White House in 2016, and he and Democratic nominee Joe Biden have made the state a frequent campaign stop, including Trump's Saturday visit to Janesville. Like other states, Wisconsin has seen a major influx of absentee ballots returned: As of Monday morning, Wisconsin voters had returned more than 863,000 absentee ballots, according to data from the state Elections Commission.

With in-person voting about to open, the elections commission issued a memo Monday reminding voters who already have mailed in ballots that they can ask to cancel, or "spoil," those ballots and vote in-person at polling places instead, provided they follow specified deadlines.

State and local election officials say they believe the steps they've taken will make for a smoother election this time around, including ramping up the number of poll workers in each county, keeping voters outside if possible and giving poll workers protective equipment and acrylic glass barriers.

"The one big difference is we have had time to take the safety measures we needed," Milwaukee Election Commission executive director Claire Woodall-Vogg told CNN.

Signing up poll workers

The Wisconsin Election Commission has stressed that it is prepared for the election. The commission released a 126-page report last month reassuring voters that the problems from the April primary -- long lines at polling places and absentee ballots being thrown out or disqualified in large numbers -- have been addressed.

One of the biggest issues in April was long lines. Meagan Wolfe, the Wisconsin Election Commission's chief official, said that on November 3 all 2,500 polling places will be open that were used during the general election in 2016. In April, not all polling places were open because there weren't enough poll workers to staff them.

The commission has focused on hiring poll workers for Election Day, and Wolfe said last week the state was only about 180 workers short out of 30,000 needed.

Madison, the state's capital, has doubled the number of people to work the polls, signing up 6,000, compared with 3,000 in the last three presidential elections, said Maribeth Witzel-Behl, the city clerk.

The city has also taken several steps to keep its polls safe amid the pandemic. Many of the locations will be drive-thru, with poll workers handing envelopes through car windows.

"There will be cleaning wipes for the screen for ballot books, sanitizer and disinfectant for pens to be used for envelopes and envelope sealers," Witzel-Behl said. "(Poll workers) will get close enough to a voter's vehicle to hand over the voter envelope to complete, but they will stand back as the voter fills out his or her name and address."

For early voting, Madison has set up locations that include outdoor options. In addition to the city clerk's office and several libraries, voters can cast ballots at three tents set up on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, outdoors polling places at two campuses of Madison College and outdoors at Edgewood College.

Milwaukee, the state's largest city, has also expanded early voting. Unlike during the primary, when Milwaukee voters could cast ballots at just three early voting sites, 14 locations are opening on Tuesday. The commission purchased personal protective equipment for its poll workers, who will be shielded by acrylic screens and provided face masks and face shields. Additional masks will be on hand to give to voters, said Woodall-Vogg.

After the line of cars waiting to vote during the primary ended up snaking through downtown, the city moved from drive-through voting to a curbside method.

But some efforts to expand early voting have been stymied by a state law banning municipalities from adding new early-voting sites they hadn't designated by a mid-June deadline.

That meant that Milwaukee had to scrap plans to allow early voting at Fiserv Forum and Miller Park, the homes of the city's professional basketball and baseball franchises. The two sports stadiums were initially added to the list of voting sites in August in a bid to better allow social distancing, but they were removed earlier this month to avoid the risk of legal challenges, Woodall-Vogg said.

In Kenosha, where some local activists have tried to use this summer's protests over the police shooting of Jacob Blake to increase voter registration and turnout, the city of about 100,000 is operating only a single early-voting site at its City Hall, said Michelle Nelson, a city spokesperson. While officials had planned to add two museums as early voting sites, they were also blocked by the state law because they had missed the June deadline, she said.

Counting absentee ballots

Another reason Wisconsin election officials are adding workers in November is because they are likely to be furiously tabulating mail-in ballots on Election Day.

Under state law, the first time the millions of expected absentee ballots can be opened for processing is 7 a.m. on Election Day -- a requirement that state officials have warned will lead to delays in announcing the results.

As states across the country have expanded mail-in voting or in some cases moved to an election conducted almost entirely by mail, several states have changed their laws to allow for earlier counting of absentee ballots -- even as Trump has made false claims attacking mail-in voting. But that hasn't happened in Wisconsin's GOP-controlled state Legislature, which has been at odds with Evers over a number of pandemic-related election matters since the disputed primary.

As a result, local officials say they're taking steps to try to get the absentee ballots tabulated as quickly as possible.

"We will have poll workers call us with turnout numbers at 11 and 4 o'clock on Election Day. We will have them let us know how many absentees they've processed so far," said Witzel-Behl. "If they are behind, we will send additional help. We have a team of officials willing to travel anywhere and will travel from location to location to get absentee ballots processed."

'This is ridiculous'

Wolfe said she was hopeful that the large number of absentee ballots would also help ease lines on Election Day. The state had sent 1.4 million to voters as of Oct. 15, she said.

The problems that plagued Wisconsin's April primary were encapsulated by a viral photo of Jennifer Taff, a Milwaukee voter standing in a huge line at a polling place and holding a handwritten sign that declared, "This is Ridiculous."

Taff, a social worker in the city's public schools, had never received her absentee ballot in the primary and ended up waiting in line more than two hours to vote.

This time around, Taff told CNN, she received her absentee ballot in the mail and plans to drop it off at a drop box at her library this week. She said she didn't trust the US Postal Service to deliver her ballot, but she thought Milwaukee had done a good job of expanding early voting and educating people about how to vote safely in the November election.

"You can't turn around without seeing some advertising or mailers about voting," she said.


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