Wisconsin absentee ballots break record amid virus outbreak

Absentee ballot requests for Wisconsin’s April 7 presidential primary hit record territory on Thursday thanks to concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic, with local clerks processing more requests than at any point in the state’s history for a spring election.

Elections officials, candidates, political parties and Gov. Tony Evers have been urging voters to cast absentee ballots so they don’t have to go to polling places during the coronavirus pandemic. Evers has banned gatherings of more than 10 people, but he said the election must go on as scheduled, even though some other states have postponed theirs.

In addition to the presidential primary, there is a state Supreme Court race, a constitutional amendment to afford crime victims more rights and hundreds of local mayoral, city council, school board and other elections on the ballot. Evers and others have insisted that instead of changing the date, precautions at the polls should be taken to protect workers, and that any voter who can should cast an absentee ballot.

The deadline to register to vote absentee was Wednesday. Those who are registered can request a ballot until April 2, but the Elections Commission is urging people to act sooner rather than later given the surge.

"People who want to vote absentee need to act now," said Reid Magney, spokesman for the commission.

As of Thursday morning, there were 315,429 absentee ballot requests successfully entered into the state system. That shattered the previous high for a spring election of 249,000 in 2016.

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As of Thursday, Wisconsin had 155 confirmed cases in 21 counties of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, with community spread in at least four counties — Milwaukee, Dane, Brown and Kenosha. Community spread is when health officials can’t identify how or when a person caught the disease.

For most people, the coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover.

Even as work continues for the April 7 election, the COVID-19 outbreak continued to disrupt nearly all aspects of normal operations in Wisconsin on Thursday.

Milwaukee-based Harley-Davidson temporarily suspended production at its three U.S. manufacturing plants after an employee at its suburban Milwaukee facility tested positive for the virus. The motorcycle maker suspended production at its Wisconsin plants in Menomonee Falls and Tomahawk, and at its facility in York, Pennsylvania.

The company said the majority of its U.S. production employees will be on temporary layoff with medical benefits. Harley planned to use the downtime to do some cleaning and disinfecting in its production and common areas.

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Harley has about 2,000 union-represented employees at its three U.S. manufacturing plants.

Late Wednesday, Evers issued an executive order waiving work search requirements and modifying the availability requirements for unemployment insurance benefits to make it easier for those out of work because of the outbreak to qualify more quickly.

Evers also wants to waive the one-week waiting period required to receive benefits, but that would require a legal change by the Legislature.

Also, the Wisconsin Democratic Party’s administrative committee voted Wednesday to cancel congressional district conventions and reduce the state convention from two to one day, June 12, and limit speeches and other business. It also voted to authorize its party chairman, Ben Wikler, to decide no later than May 1 whether to continue with the in-person meeting at the Wilderness Resort in Wisconsin Dells or do it virtually.

The Wilderness is closed until at least April 2, according to its website.

The Wisconsin Republican Party scheduled its state convention for the weekend of May 15 in Green Bay. The party expects to make changes, said executive director Mark Jefferson, but none have been finalized.

The Democratic National Convention is slated for mid-July in Milwaukee. Party leaders have not announced any changes to that gathering.