‘Voter Suppression At Its Finest’: Wisconsin Citizens Say Missing Ballots, Lines and Coronavirus Kept Them from Being Counted in Election
Hali Fisher, 24, waits in line to vote in Milwaukee on Tuesday, April 7, 2020. The Wisconsin primary went forward amid the coronavirus epidemic after Gov. Tony Evers' attempt to shut down the election was rejected by the Wisconsin Supreme Court on Monday. (Mike De Sisti / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel via USA TODAY NETWORK)
With just hours before election results are released, many Wisconsin citizens say they never got the chance to cast their votes.
After a chaotic week culminating in a last-minute U.S. Supreme Court order, questions remain about the validity of the process for people who never received their absentee ballots.
Over the past several days, reporters interviewed 32 would-be voters who said they were forced to choose between going to the polls during a pandemic and not having their votes counted.
More than 500 people, responding to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in an online form, said they requested their ballots in advance but did not receive them in time.
A picture emerged of voters disappointed, angry and confused about how the election played out in a state that has long prided itself on taking voting seriously.
Roseann Schmidt, an 80-year-old disabled breast cancer survivor who lives in Milwaukee, said she applied twice for an absentee ballot.
After her first attempt was rejected because she did not know how to attach a photo ID, Schmidt applied a second time with the help of a disability rights advocate.
Although Schmidt got confirmation that the ballot was mailed, no envelope had arrived by election day, she said.
“I felt so bad all day,” she said. “All day, off and on, I just burst into crying. I just felt so bad, physically sick and then not being able to go and vote on top of it all. My day just felt so empty. It was nothing. It was just fruitless.”
Several would-be voters in Milwaukee said they were recovering from COVID-19.
Hannah Gleeson, a 34-year-old health care worker, said she knew voting in person was not going to be an option for her after she tested positive for coronavirus in late March.
Gleeson said she and her husband requested absentee ballots ahead of the deadline but never received them. On election day, the couple stayed home as others made their way to the polls.
“I can’t expose hundreds, possibly thousands, of people to something that I’ve been struggling with now for 14 days,” Gleeson said. “I really think it’s voter suppression at its finest. I honestly think that it’s a failing of democracy and everything that America was built on.”
Lee McFadden Jr., 63, a retiree who said he was recently discharged from the hospital after recovering from coronavirus, lugged his oxygen tank to three different poll locations looking for one without a line.
Unable to stand for long, he was confronted with crowds at every location, he said.
“I told my wife, ‘We’re not going to vote this year because my health means more to me than trying to elect some official,’” McFadden said. “So I came home.”
Milwaukee offered only five polling places Tuesday due to lack of poll workers — less than 3% of its normal 180 voting sites.
Unofficial election results are expected after 4 p.m. Monday.
Of the nearly 1.3 million absentee ballots requested for last Tuesday’s election, more than 200,000 had not been returned as of Saturday, according to the Wisconsin Elections Commission.
Over the past week, pockets of evidence surfaced of ballots that never made it to intended recipients. In Milwaukee, election officials called for the U.S. Postal Service to investigate absentee ballots mailed about March 22 and 23 that were never received.
In Fox Point, village officials said hundreds of ballots were returned as undeliverable, without explanation, in the week leading up to the election.
And in Oshkosh and Appleton, officials reported finding three tubs of absentee ballots in a mail processing center.
On top of all that, in a 5-4 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court determined on the eve of the election that ballots postmarked after April 7 should not be counted. But metered mail isn’t postmarked, leaving local election officials wondering what to do with ballots received Wednesday and Thursday that were likely mailed before deadline but weren’t postmarked.
And when the Milwaukee Election Commission met Sunday via Zoom to determine what to do with 354 such ballots, the meeting was “zoombombed” by disruptive hackers and had to be canceled.
Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz of Oshkosh said the online portal where he ordered his ballot confirmed it was sent on March 24, though he never received it.
When speaking with the state elections board, the Democratic lawmaker learned that a “glitch” due to the large number of requests may have resulted in ballots not being sent.
“I don’t expect it to ever come,” Hintz said.
Many people of color, sensitive to the hard-fought right to vote, said the experience weighed on them heavily.
“I always tell my family to vote — my aunts and uncles … and my mom,” said Alexandra Salazar, a 26-year-old from Milwaukee who lives with her girlfriend and three family members.
When Salazar’s absentee ballot did not arrive, she said she could not risk bringing COVID-19 back to the household.
As a queer person of color, Salazar said she “felt this sense of weight of having to vote because it is a voice for my community. And the fact that that was taken from me just made it all the more worse.”
Shavonda Sisson, who works for the nonprofit Public Allies Milwaukee, was among several who said they did not receive their ballots but whose spouses, partners or roommates did.
Not receiving her ballot “essentially left me disenfranchised,” she said.
Experiences like this “continue to feed the historical mistrust for systems that we would love to think are there for us,” Sisson said.
Michael DeNomie, a 46-year-old software developer in Milwaukee County, said he and his wife requested ballots around the same time in mid-March. His wife’s ballot arrived promptly; his never did.
DeNomie requested a second ballot, but it arrived two days too late, he said.
“It makes me really angry,” said DeNomie. “And I know that this happened to a lot of people.”
Doug Doeren, 74-year-old from Brown County, said he tried five times to vote: once by absentee ballot, which never came; twice curbside, and twice in person.
Green Bay was among the hardest hit cities in the state, with voters reporting that it took up to four hours to cast their ballots. The third largest city in Wisconsin reduced its normal polling sites from 31 to just two due to a lack of poll workers, according to city officials.
Doeren said he was turned away by the long lines and given incorrect information about voting times. With huge crowds still waiting to vote by 8 p.m., Doeren and his wife gave up and went home.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said. “It was definitely a suppression of the vote, and it upsets me.”
Reporter Daphne Chen is with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel; Marcia Robiou, Kacey Cherry and June Cross are from FRONTLINE PBS; and Elizabeth Mulvey is from Columbia Journalism Investigations. Bianca Ladipo of FRONTLINE contributed to this report.