Wisconsin residents head to polls under shadow of coronavirus

Long lines, National Guard troops await voters participating in statewide elections derided as 'dangerous'.

    Cherie Link, a candidate for Wisconsin State Senate disinfecting the computerized voting station in Somerset, Wisconsin, US [Nick Pfosi/Reuters]
    Cherie Link, a candidate for Wisconsin State Senate disinfecting the computerized voting station in Somerset, Wisconsin, US [Nick Pfosi/Reuters]

    Wisconsin voters faced long lines at limited polling locations on Tuesday, as the state's presidential primary and local elections moved ahead despite mounting fears about the coronavirus pandemic.

    The election is taking place even though Wisconsin, like most US states, has imposed a stay-at-home order on its residents. More than a dozen other states have postponed their elections in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has transformed Americans' daily lives and plunged the economy into an apparent recession.

    More than half of Wisconsin's municipalities reported shortages of poll workers, prompting the Midwestern state to call up 2,400 National Guard troops to assist.

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    A flurry of 11th-hour legal wrangling failed to stop the balloting, as two late court rulings on Monday put the election, which will include Democratic and Republican presidential primaries and voting for thousands of state and local offices, back on track after days of uncertainty.

    In deciding separate lawsuits brought by Republicans, the state Supreme Court blocked Democratic Governor Tony Evers's order to delay the election until June. The US Supreme Court earlier overturned a federal judge's decision extending absentee voting, ruling that ballots must be postmarked by Tuesday to be counted.

    A late-night meeting on Monday, the Wisconsin Elections Commission said no results of Tuesday's voting would be released until April 13, the deadline for absentee ballots postmarked by Tuesday to be received.

    In Milwaukee, the health commissioner in Wisconsin's biggest city, Jeanette Kowalik, asked voters to wear masks, avoid reusing pens and stand at least six feet apart.

    "I'm sorry, I wish I had the authority to protect us from this," she wrote on Twitter.

    The legal manoeuvring overshadowed the Democratic presidential primary in Wisconsin, the first nominating contest held since March 17 in the race to pick a challenger to Republican President Donald Trump in the November 3 election. The outbreak has pushed frontrunner Joe Biden and rival Bernie Sanders off the campaign trail.

    Former Vice President Biden has built a nearly insurmountable lead over Senator Sanders in the number of delegates who will pick the nominee at the national convention. The convention, scheduled to be held in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, has been postponed to August from July because of the pandemic.

    Beyond the shifts in the primary calendar, Biden and Trump have not been able to hold in-person campaign events and have moved most of their operations online. Sanders called Tuesday's election "dangerous" and said his campaign would not engage in any traditional get-out-the-vote efforts.

    Before the Wisconsin primary, thousands of poll workers said they would not work, leading Milwaukee to reduce its planned number of polling sites from 180 to just five. More than 2,500 National Guard troops were dispatched to staff the polls. They were also distributing supplies, including hand sanitiser, to polling sites across the state. In Madison, city workers were erecting Plexiglas barriers to protect poll workers, and voters were encouraged to bring their own pens to mark the ballots.

    In Wisconsin, there are 2,440 confirmed coronavirus cases and 77 deaths related to COVID-19, according to state data.

    Wisconsin Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes called Tuesday's primary election a "s*** show" as reports of long lines were forming at polling locations after Democrats in the state fought to postpone the election amid the coronavirus pandemic.

    "Buckle up, this one's sure to disappoint!," he added.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies