Through the photographer’s eye: A journey from countryside to cityscape during Wisconsin’s pandemic election

By Coburn Dukehart, Wisconsin Watch

On Tuesday, April 7, I woke up at 5:30 a.m. in Door County, Wisconsin — a rural and remote part of the state — to start a three-hour drive to Milwaukee to document the state’s primary election through my camera.

On the way, I stopped at the polling place in Sevastopol, population 2,667, where I saw more poll workers than voters. Next stop: Sturgeon Bay City Hall, where I found another quiet scene, with poll workers waiting patiently behind plexiglass sneeze guards — newly constructed to protect against the coronavirus pandemic that made this election so extraordinary.

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Poll workers sit behind newly built sneeze guards, provided by municipal services, while voting takes places at Sturgeon Bay City Hall in Sturgeon Bay, Wis., during the Wisconsin primary election on April 7, 2020.

Photo by Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Watch

By then I noticed the social media reports of exceptionally long lines at Milwaukee’s five polling places — condensed from the 180 locations during typical elections — so I was eager to head south.

The view from my car turned from country road into highway, and eventually into Milwaukee’s cityscape, with its narrow streets. I met my colleague Lauren Fuhrmann at Washington High School, where the midday polling lines stretched the length of a playing field and snaked around a corner.

Lauren and I launched a drone from the field and captured an astounding scene; Voters, most of them wearing masks, trying their hardest to stand 6 feet apart while shuffling slowly down the block.

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The voting line outside Riverside High School in Milwaukee wraps around the school building, down the block, across a park, and into an adjacent neighborhood during the primary election on April 7, 2020.

From there we travelled to Riverside University High School, where we found an even longer line of voters. It wrapped around the school building, down the block, across a park and into an adjacent neighborhood. Enjoying the sunshine and 70-degree weather, most of the voters seemed in good spirits. Rock music blared from a nearby house, and jazz musicians played on the school steps. An Ian’s Pizza employee passed out free pies ordered by someone named Esther. Lauren took a timelapse video showing the line’s shocking length. In a nearby park, we captured a dramatic shot of Milwaukee’s skyline, framing a seemingly endless line of voters.

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The voting line outside Riverside High School in Milwaukee wraps around the school building, down the block, across a park, and into an adjacent neighborhood during the primary election on April 7, 2020.

From Riverside, we drove about 20 minutes to Marshall High School. A massive downpour thwarted our plans to relaunch the drone, and it soaked hundreds of eager voters waiting in line. Poll workers passed out garbage bags to try to keep them dry. We switched to taking portraits, with Lauren interviewing voters about why they chose to brave going to the polls during a worldwide public health crisis. Most described themselves as dedicated voters who would never miss an election. Many said they had requested an absentee ballot that never arrived, a familiar refrain heard across the state as officials investigated ballots that were never delivered by the postal service.  Most voters we talked to thought Wisconsin had no business holding an election during the pandemic, and in-person voting should have been cancelled.

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Voters stand in a long line in the pouring rain outside Marshall High School in Milwaukee on April 7, 2020. Poll workers passed out garbage bags for people to use for protection from the storm.

Photo by Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Watch

After taking a break to file some images, drink some water and snag some pizza from a kind soul passing it around to people in cars, I returned to the Marshall High School parking lot around 8:40 p.m. The line still stretched farther than I could see in the dark. Headlights from cars waiting to vote curbside illuminated the street. Any voter in line by 8 p.m. would get to vote.

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A line of cars stretches around the block as people wait to vote curbside outside of Marshall High School in Milwaukee at 8:50 p.m., on April 7, 2020. Any voter in line before 8:00 p.m. was still allowed to vote in the election.

Photo by Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Watch

Throughout the day I was struck by the poise, politeness and professionalism of the poll workers and the voters, considering the circumstances. It was hot. There was a downpour. People waited for hours. And, of course, that viral pandemic. Yet everyone seemed patient and  determined to ensure each vote counted. I heard just one slightly raised voice all day. A woman instructed a  voter in line next to her: “Please stay six feet away, you are getting too close.”

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Jay Romant from the City of Milwaukee Health department encourages voters to keep six feet apart from each other outside of Marshall High School in Milwaukee on April 7, 2020.

Photo by Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Watch

When I finally ventured inside Marshall High School around 9 p.m., what I saw more resembled a  field hospital than a polling place. And there were a lot of people there — far more than I was comfortable being in close proximity to during a pandemic. Poll workers wore masks, gowns and face shields, and blue tape Xs on the floor marked where people should stand at a safe distance. It was organized and orderly — but still very crowded.

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Voters fill the polling station at Marshall High School in Milwaukee after 9:00 p.m., on April 7, 2020. Any voter in line before 8:00 p.m. was still allowed to vote in the election.

Photo by Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Watch

I stayed until the last voter walked in the door around 9:30 p.m. I got my squirt of hand sanitizer from a volunteer, and I left to see a line of cars still slowly inching their way around the block.

As I drove away, exhausted, I found a note on my dashboard from a police officer that my car had been hit by a curbside voter. Given what people had been through that day — literally risking their lives to vote — the small scratch in my bumper didn’t really matter.

In a few weeks, we’ll know whether the virus spread among poll workers and people who voted. I’m praying that the masks, plexiglass shields and orange cones keeping voters apart actually worked.