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Advocates say Wisconsin primary will lead to voter suppression

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  • Wisconsin’s primary election proceeded as scheduled Tuesday despite state Democrats’ attempts to move it and extend absentee voting.
  • The US Supreme Court late Monday overturned a lower court ruling that allowed absentee ballots to be sent in late — until April 13.
  • Long lines and crowded polling places were seen Tuesday despite state-ordered social distancing. 
  • Voting rights advocates fear that the decision to hold in-person voting on Tuesday could put people’s health at risk and disenfranchise voters.
  • “The bottom line is no one should have to choose between protecting their health and protecting their right to vote,” Molly McGrath of the ACLU told Business Insider.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

People in Wisconsin voted in the state’s in-person primary Tuesday despite an order that requires state residents to stay at home in order to prevent further COVID-19 infections. Voting rights advocates warn the primary, which has been plagued with long lines and closed polling location will lead to a suppressed voter turnout.

Molly McGrath, a voting rights campaign strategist with the American Civil Liberties Union, told Business Insider that Tuesday’s primary in Wisconsin was like “voter suppression on steroids.”  

“The bottom line is no one should have to choose between protecting their health and protecting their right to vote,” she said, noting that photos of Wisconsin’s primary depicted long lines of Black and brown voters waiting to cast ballots. 

She added: “a lot of the same communities and the same people who are impacted by voter suppression are now impacted in this pandemic.” 

“Wisconsin’s absentee ballot rules are no doubt disenfranchising voters,” Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause Wisconsin said in a statement. “Governor Evers and the legislature must work together to resolve these issues before the November election so voters can cast their ballot in a safe, accessible, and fair way.”

More than 50,000 voters were expected to vote in Milwaukee, the state’s largest city, but the number of polling locations was reduced from more than 180 to just 5, according to The New York Times, creating long lines of voters spread out for blocks as they attempted to practice social distancing. Some voters waiting for more than two hours, according to The Times.

In addition to minority voters, McGrath said voters who have disabilities who wanted to vote in person and college students forced off campuses also faced hurdles in participating in Tuesday’s primary election.

State Republicans rejected Democratic efforts to extend absentee voting

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, had placed the state on a “Safer at Home” order (other states have called similar mandates stay-at-home orders) on March 25, which stated “all individuals present within the State of Wisconsin are ordered to stay at home or at their place of residence” except for exempted reasons, which included “essential government activities.” 

Evers had urged the Republican-controlled State Legislature to reconfigure the primary election, though it declined to do so, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Democrats had secured a short-lived victory in a federal court in Wisconsin, which extended the deadline for mailed-in absentee ballots until April 13. Republicans sued to block the extension, resulting in a Monday ruling by the Supreme Court, which said absentee ballots needed to be postmarked by Tuesday.

The Supreme Court overruled a federal court that extended primary voting 

In a 5-4 decision made late Monday, the US Supreme Court ruled that the election must go on as scheduled. Extending the deadline for absentee ballots “fundamentally alters the nature of the election.”

It continued: “The Court’s decision on the narrow question before the Court should not be viewed as expressing an opinion on the broader question of whether to hold the election, or whether other reforms or modifications in election procedures in light of COVID–19 are appropriate.” 

All four of the court’s liberal voices dissented with the ruling. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who authored the court’s dissenting opinion wrote: “the court’s order, I fear, will result in massive disenfranchisement.”

An hour before the US Supreme Court made its ruling, the Wisconsin Supreme Court overturned an executive order from the governor that would have postponed the in-person voting Tuesday, Politico reported.

Heck said there were “seven months until the general election and there is time to fix these issues before November to ensure we are protecting public health and the right to vote.”

He added: “Wisconsin is the only state in the nation that has failed to step up and respond responsibly and safely to the current national health pandemic emergency.”

McGrath told Business Insider changes needed to be made on a federal level before November to provide “better options” and “public education” for voters.

“The nation’s eyes are on Wisconsin, and Congress has to act,” she added. 

Other states moved their primaries due to the ongoing pandemic

In Ohio, a court had struck down Gov. Mike DeWine’s decision to postpone in-person voting, though he was able to postpone voting anyway through an order from the director of the state health department that was backed up by the state’s Supreme Court.

Nationwide, 15 states — Alaska, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, West Virginia, Wyoming — and Puerto Rico have pushed back their primary election.

On Tuesday, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services reported that deaths from COVID-19 in the state increased from 77 to 92 and the number of confirmed cases rose from 2,440 to 2,578. 

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