Wisconsin hopes for smoother primary than April election

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin’s second statewide election since the coronavirus pandemic began came with far more time to prepare than the first, with election officials hoping for a smoother result in Tuesday’s primary.

The state’s presidential primary in April was a messy affair, with municipalities forced to shut down polling sites after workers refused to show up out of fear of contracting the virus. The postal system was overwhelmed with absentee ballots.

Absentee voting has again been intense, with nearly 906,000 such ballots requested by people looking to avoid in-person voting. That compares with around 123,000 in the primary two years ago. As of Tuesday morning, more than 554,000 absentee ballots had been returned, or about 61% of those requested.

Gov. Tony Evers has activated the National Guard to help staff polling sites. Officials in Milwaukee expected to be able to run about 170 polling sites after offering just five in April. They offered poll workers an additional $100 and launched a recruiting effort, said Julietta Henry, director of the Milwaukee County Election Commission.

Poll workers will wear protective equipment and work from behind plexiglass shields, she added. All polling sites will offer curbside voting for people experiencing COVID-19 symptoms or people who have come into contact with people with symptomatic COVID-19.

Claire Woodall-Vogg, executive director of the Milwaukee Election Commission, said Tuesday that in-person turnout was light in the city Tuesday morning, but no problems were being reported. She said about 45,000 absentee ballots had been received already, with thousands more anticipated during they day. Woodall-Vogg said she was confident they all would be counted Tuesday.

James Lewis, a poll worker in Milwaukee, said by mid-afternoon that only about 25 voters had come to cast ballots in person. He speculated that more people were voting absentee.

“Maybe the virus is turning people off? It sounds like,” he said.

Here’s a summary of key races on the ballot and a look at how voters have adjusted to elections in the virus era:


Republicans are looking to flip six seats in November — three in the Assembly and three in the Senate — to win two-thirds majorities in each house. That would enable the GOP to override Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ vetoes and largely sideline the governor for the next session. The primary will winnow the field of candidates and set November match-ups. The ballot features 28 legislative primaries. Notable races include:

— A seven-way Democratic primary in Madison to replace state Sen. Fred Risser, who has held the seat since 1962. No Republicans are winning, so Tuesday’s winner gets the seat.

— Former state Agriculture Secretary Brad Pfaff is in a three-way Democratic primary for an open Senate seat in western Wisconsin. Pfaff decided to run after the Republican-controlled Senate fired him from his secretary post last year. Republican Dan Kapanke awaits the winner in what the GOP sees as a prime pickup chance.

— Democrats Sandra Ewald of Green Bay and Jonathon Hansen of De Pere clash in a primary for an open Senate seat in northeastern Wisconsin. Hansen’s uncle, Democrat Dave Hansen, held the seat for 19 years before retiring this year. The winner takes on Republican attorney Eric Wimberger in November. The district leans conservative and Republicans are banking that they can flip it.

— State Rep. Staush Gruszynski faces Kristina Shelton in a Democratic primary in the Green Bay area. Democratic leaders demanded Gruszynski resign in December after a legislative staffer accused him of verbal sexual harassment but Gruszynski refused. The primary winner will take on Republican Drew Kirstetter in November.


Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald faces business owner Cliff DeTemple in a GOP primary in southeastern Wisconsin’s open and conservative-leaning 5th District. The winner will be heavily favored again Democrat Tom Palzewicz in November.

In western Wisconsin’s 3rd District, former Navy Seal Derrick Van Orden faces public relations professional Jessi Ebben. The winner takes on Democratic Rep. Ron Kind, who faces a primary challenge from Mark Neumann, who argues Kind isn’t liberal enough.


Jen Peck, a 51-year-old teacher trainer from Eau Claire, and her 18-year-old daughter, Liz Wiltgen, both voted absentee, just as they did in April.

“Not knowing what the future will hold, our family is being really, really careful,” Peck said. “It was safe and easy and we could do it from home.”

Peck described herself as politically independent. She voted for Bernie Sanders in April’s presidential primary but voted for Ebben in the 3rd District congressional primary. Ebben’s campaign ads describe her as a “Trump Republican” but Peck said she supports young women getting into politics.

Jan Graveline, a 60-year-old graphic designer in Milwaukee who identifies as a Democrat, said she tried to vote absentee in April but her ballot never arrived. She stood in line for 2 1/2 hours in a hailstorm to vote in-person for Elizabeth Warren.

“It was scary but also just too important an election not to vote,” she said. She’s since become a plaintiff in a federal lawsuit seeking to relax restrictions on absentee voting in Wisconsin. U.S. District Judge William Conley is expected to issue a ruling by the end of August.

Graveline voted absentee again for Tuesday’s primary. She said she dropped her ballot off at City Hall on Friday because she didn’t trust the U.S. Postal Service to deliver it.


Associated Press writer Scott Bauer contributed to this report.

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