WASHINGTON - Even with a rising tide of coronavirus cases, the Midwestern U.S. state of Wisconsin voted Tuesday in a Democratic presidential primary the state supreme court reinstated after the governor had postponed it.
The number of polling places was sharply reduced throughout the state, with hundreds of Election Day poll workers refusing to honor their commitment to work for fear of contracting the deadly virus as they checked in voters off registration lists.
In Milwaukee, the state's biggest city, only five of the planned 180 polling stations were open.
But long lines of self-distancing voters quickly emerged at the open polling stations, with healthcare workers handing out masks to people waiting in line.
As the day wore on, some voters waited up to 2½ hours to cast a ballot.
"We have moved forward with an election," the top Milwaukee election official, Neil Albrecht, said, "but we have not moved forward with democracy in the state of Wisconsin."
The voting started after the conservative-dominated state supreme court, in a 4-2 ruling Monday, overrode an executive order by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers to postpone in-person voting until June. He had called off voting after people throughout the state said it was too dangerous to risk voting as the number of coronavirus cases mounts by the day.
Wisconsin has more than 2,400 confirmed coronavirus cases and 84 recorded deaths.
U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams cautioned Wisconsin voters to be careful as they headed to the polls.
"I say as a black man that I know that people have died for the right to vote," Adams told NBC's "Today" show. "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."
More than a dozen U.S. states have postponed Democratic presidential primaries in April and May between former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders until weeks from now in hopes that by then the effects of the virus will have dissipated enough to allow voters to show up at polling places to cast ballots without endangering their health.
But Wisconsin was the last holdout refusing to postpone its vote.
As Tuesday's voting started, officials took unusual precautions to try to prevent the spread of the virus, wiping down voting stations every 15 minutes. Plexiglass barriers were installed at voter check-in tables to separate poll workers from voters and the poll workers wore masks and gloves.
There were markers two meters apart on floors at polling stations to show voters where to distance themselves from others waiting in line.
Tuesday's Wisconsin vote in the Democratic presidential primary pits Biden against his remaining rival Sanders, but there are other state and local contests being decided as well.
The contentious lead-up to the Wisconsin voting could be a precursor of legal fights to come over U.S. voting rights seven months ahead of the Nov. 3 election. Wisconsin Democrats, aside from trying to postpone the vote, wanted to allow absentee mail-in ballots to be tallied for a week after the Tuesday vote and won a federal court ruling to permit them to be counted.
But Wisconsin Republicans and the national Republican party fought the ruling and won. On Monday night, hours before the Wisconsin voting started, the U.S. Supreme Court's 5-4 conservative majority ruled that the late absentee votes could not be counted.
National Democratic leaders, including Biden, have been pushing for greatly expanded mail-in voting in the U.S., especially with the uncertainty over the spread of the coronavirus in the coming months.
A handful of U.S. states already conduct their elections by mail-in ballots, but Republicans have steadfastly opposed such an expansion of voting nationwide, saying they believe it would invite widespread fraud.
Wisconsin is a politically divided state, with liberal enclaves of Democratic voters in Milwaukee and the state capital of Madison. Vast reaches of more conservative voters reside in rural communities, smaller cities and farming regions.
After years of voters favoring Democratic presidential candidates, the state voted for Trump over Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, helping him win a four-year term in the White House.
Early 2020 polling shows Biden with a slight edge over Trump in Wisconsin, with the November outcome in the state again playing a key role in determining the national election.
U.S. presidential elections are not decided by a national popular vote, but rather in the Electoral College, where the outcome of the votes in each of the 50 states determines the national winner.