(Washington DC – April 7, 2020) – Today, voters in Wisconsin attempted to cast their ballots in a tumultuous primary election that disenfranchised tens of thousands of eligible voters who were not able to successfully cast a ballot. Last minute changes to Wisconsin’s election law resulting from the U.S. Supreme Court instituting an April 7 postmark deadline for absentee ballot requests had a significant impact on voters. Voters were forced to vote in person or had to take immediate action to ensure that their absentee ballot, if received, was returned or postmarked by today. Many voters had not received their absentee ballots and were forced to wait on hours-long lines just to cast their ballot. Others received conflicting information from election officials about when and how they were able to vote.
“The Wisconsin primary election was a chaotic fiasco that makes clear the insurmountable challenges that voters face in the wake of a pandemic,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “We know well thousands of eligible voters across Wisconsin were disenfranchised. Nowhere were the barriers more pronounced than in Milwaukee, where a city of over 600,000 people was left with only five in-person voting sites. Voters there were subject to long lines and protracted wait times. Racial data regarding the coronavirus also shows that African American voters in Milwaukee are experiencing disproportionately high rates of deaths and confirmed cases. For many Black voters, they had to choose between bracing long lines and running the risk of coronavirus exposure or being flatly disenfranchised.”
Clarke continued: “The U.S. Supreme Court’s 11th hour ruling resulted in a dramatic shifting of the timelines for absentee voting, leaving voters in the position of voting in person if they did not receive a requested absentee ballot or facing disenfranchisement if they chose to comply with the state’s ‘stay-at-home’ order. The ruling leaves many wondering whether this Court intends to unnecessarily interject itself into local and state election battles during this presidential election season.”
One of these Wisconsin voters, Meoeacish Bouldin, is a 37-year old African American mother of three from Milwaukee’s North Side who works in education and healthcare. She requested an absentee ballot in early March because of COVID-19. “I confirmed online that my absentee ballot was mailed out on March 25. But as of Tuesday’s election, I still have not received it. I’ve called the state capitol, I’ve called the office of my county clerk twice and finally got through to a volunteer. My absentee ballot may arrive after the election and I could not get a replacement ballot sent via email. My only option to ensure my vote counts is to vote in person today, which I plan to do. I wanted to follow the Governor’s orders, but all of this doesn’t make sense.”
During today’s primaries, Election Protection managed a suite of non-partisan hotlines to directly help voters. Election Protection is the nation’s largest and longest-running nonpartisan voter protection coalition that works year-round to safeguard voting rights across the country. Throughout the primary election season, Wisconsin voters called into the non-partisan Election Protection hotlines to report polling place and absentee ballot issues. These hotlines 866-OUR-VOTE (866-687-8683), 888-VE-Y-VOTA (888-839-8682), 888-API-VOTE (888-273-8683), and 844-YALLA-US (844- 925-5287), provided support to voters across the state, in multiple languages.
Over the past several weeks, top Wisconsin officials have generally resisted calls to postpone the election, but that changed over the past several days. On Monday, April 6th, Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers ordered postponement of in-person voting until June 9th. Several hours later, Wisconsin’s state Supreme Court blocked Governor Evers’ executive order. An hour after that, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked a lower court’s extension of the absentee ballot submission deadline. For several days prior to April 7th, Wisconsin voters were informed that they would have until April 13th to submit their completed absentee ballots, pursuant to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeal’s decision. The night before Wisconsinites were scheduled to vote, the U.S. Supreme Court held, in a 5-4 decision, that absentee ballots must be postmarked by Election Day, despite data showing that thousands of voters still had not received their ballot. These significant last-minute changes to the primary election proved confusing and chaotic for Wisconsin voters, leaving many voters disenfranchised.
The spread of COVID-19 has created new challenges for election officials and poll workers. Election officials were forced to shut down all but five out of 180 polling places in Milwaukee because of a lack of poll workers. The National Guard was brought in to staff polling sites. Due to the small number of polling places across a city of 600,000 people, long lines developed in at least four of the five polling sites. Throughout the day, voters reported waiting in line for over an hour to vote. In these unprecedented times, election officials and poll workers are trying to balance the need to protect public safety with their mandate to promote free and fair elections.
Approximately sixty percent of all calls today came from Wisconsinites who never received their absentee ballot or needed information about how to vote-by-mail. The most frequent type of call came from voters who requested a vote-by-mail ballot, sometimes as far in advance as early March, but never received it. The U.S. Supreme Court’s 11th hour decision to roll back the expanded absentee ballot voting period disenfranchised many of these voters.
Much work remains to be done to ensure a higher level of preparedness among states that have not yet conducted their primary elections and to ensure that the country can conduct free and fair elections in November.
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