MILWAUKEE — Wisconsin voters braved extensive lines and hourslong waits as they defied the state's stay-at-home order to vote Tuesday after two courts ruled that the primary election couldn't be postponed.
"This is so wrong," a voter told NBC News. "This election should have been called off. They're telling us to stay in the house and 6 feet from each other, but then, during one of the most important times, they're forcing us to come out here in a group. Stop playing politics with our lives"
State Democrats sought to delay the contest but failed.
Polls are open until 9 p.m. ET for voters to cast ballots in person, although according to the state Elections Commission, voters' designated polling places may have changed because of poll worker shortages. Voters in Milwaukee, many donning masks, faced long lines and large crowds after thousands of poll workers stepped down, forcing the city to reduce the number of polling sites from 180 to just five.
As a result of one of the court rulings Monday, many voters who applied for absentee ballots but didn't get them by Tuesday had only the option of voting in person. Voters who did get absentee ballots had only until 8 p.m. Tuesday to hand them in in person, or they could postmark them so they arrive by Monday.
Wisconsin's chief elections official, Meagan Wolfe, said in a statement Monday that voters who show up to the polls Tuesday should "be careful and patient" as social distancing procedures would be implemented at each site. The state also recommended that voters wash their hands before heading to their polling places and wash or sanitize their hands when they arrive at the location before they vote.
"This is very unjust. There's no way that there should be thousands of people during a pandemic and five locations," Briana Stevens said before handing out Clorox wipes and other supplies to voters waiting in line. "That's terrible. It's inhumane, and as people we have a stick together, and this is what we can do by helping each other out."
In an interview Tuesday on NBC News' "TODAY" show, Surgeon General Jerome Adams urged voters to exercise their right to vote as safely as possible.
"As a black man, I know that people have died for the right to vote. This is very important to our entire country. And if people are going to go out there and vote, then please do it as safely as possible — maintain 6 feet," he said. "Please, especially in Wisconsin, consider wearing a cloth facial covering to protect your neighbor."
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Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., the only candidate left challenging the front-runner, former Vice President Joe Biden, for the Democratic presidential nomination, said in a statement Monday night that his campaign would not participate in get-out-the-vote efforts Tuesday.
"Let's be clear: Holding this election amid the coronavirus outbreak is dangerous, disregards the guidance of public health experts, and may very well prove deadly," he said.
Biden said on CNN Tuesday night that the in-person election should not have been held.
"Well, my gut is that we shouldn't have had the election in the first place — the in-person election," Biden told CNN's Chris Cuomo. "It should have been all mail ballots in, it should have been moved in a way that five other states have done it."
Biden has a big lead over Sanders in the state, according to recent polls; one from Marquette Law School last week showed him ahead by 62 percent to 34 percent. The NBC News delegate tracker shows that Biden has 1,196 delegates to Sanders' 883. A candidate needs to secure 1,991 delegates to win the nomination.
More than 2,500 National Guard troops were dispatched to staff the polls, where they were expected to help perform the normal functions of poll workers while also distributing hand sanitizer. In Madison, city workers erected Plexiglas barriers to protect poll workers, and voters were encouraged to bring their own pens to mark the ballots.
"I haven't seen anything like this in my lifetime. I'm almost 60. You know, it's almost unbelievable. I remember long lines during the Reagan years, but the confluence of events is ridiculous. It's amazing. And I do think Fitzgerald and Vos are setting people up to be killed," said Todd Marsh, a Milwaukee voter, referring to the Republican leaders of the state Legislature, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos.
"They forced us into having this election. It's, it's ridiculous," Marsh added.
After a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday, absentee ballots in Wisconsin had to be hand-delivered by 8 p.m. Tuesday or postmarked Tuesday and received by 4 p.m. next Monday to be counted. Any other ballots won't be counted, the state says.
Many requests for ballots hadn't been fulfilled, and many voters who received them hadn't returned them yet. As of Monday night, 1,275,154 applications for absentee ballots had been submitted; 1,264,064 were sent out to voters, but only 724,777 had been returned, according to the Elections Commission.
The Supreme Court voted along ideological lines in a 5-4 decision, overturning a lower federal court's ruling to extend the deadline for the absentee ballot process. The court's four liberal justices dissented, saying it would lead to "massive disenfranchisement" Tuesday. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said the ruling "forces voters to choose between endangering their safety by showing up in person or losing their right to vote."
Wisconsin's Supreme Court on Monday also overturned an executive order issued by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers only hours earlier after he tried to delay the election until June 9 because of the coronavirus.
In addition to the Democratic presidential primary, the state was also holding general elections for a number of down-ballot races. Results won't be released until Monday.