My experience with the Wisconsin primary in Waupun


Peter Laning, Writer, Podcaster

I voted in my first election on April 5, 2016 – the Wisconsin Presidential Primary.  I was 19 and nearing the end of my post-high school “gap year” – the year I worked and contemplated whether pursuing a college career was worthwhile.  Being young(er) and slightly naïve, I had no idea what the future was holding in store.

Fast forward to April 2020 and the situation is far different than it was four years ago.  And I don’t mean because of the current political landscape.  The spread of COVID-19 has forced the closure of schools and other businesses deemed non-essential.  Unemployment numbers have skyrocketed and, as a result, the national mood has slipped into a feeling of perpetual darkness.

To add insult to injury, many Americans who requested absentee ballots in light of the current pandemic never received them.  In a report published on April 8 by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, three tubs of missing ballots were discovered in a mail processing center.  And in Fox Point, 100+ ballots were being sent back to the village hall per day without having been delivered to local voters.

In my hometown of Waupun, WI (population 11,318) things felt no less confusing.  For the 2016 primary, registration and voting was a breeze.  Most voters were in and out of City Hall (our singular polling place) in 15 minutes or less and could chat with neighbors and other friends they encountered at the polls.

Come election day – April 7, 2020 – the mood was much more somber.  Very few vehicles (20 or 30 at most) were in the parking lots surrounding City Hall.  It was quiet – a very strange experience in Waupun at 12:30 in the afternoon.  Even walking up the steps to City Hall was surreal.

Upon entering, I was greeted with a semi-familiar sight.  The appearance of Waupun City Hall has not changed.  It is still divided down the middle for elections (as Waupun sits upon the border of Dodge and Fond du Lac Counties), but there were far more safety precautions put in place than in previous years.

Outside the main atrium, place markers (or as I told my mom, “social distancing tape”) were placed every six feet or so.  Glass barriers were placed between voters and poll workers and yellow caution tape was placed everywhere.  For every one voting booth open, two were blocked off (again giving a  distance of about six feet between voters). As an extra precaution, the city even took the time to place automated hand sanitizer dispensers at the entrances and exits of the atrium.

The poll workers were fast and efficient.  Some wore masks, but more did their duty without, sitting behind the glass barriers and working as quickly as possible.  I did what I could to thank them, but they were so engrossed in their work that they had little time to give more than an acknowledging head nod.

Voters – friends and neighbors – didn’t spend time to talk, even while waiting in line.  The whole experience felt like there was some negative social norm placed upon it (pandemic aside).  Every person there had one purpose – get in, vote, and get out.  The entire process took less than five minutes.

Walking out afterwards was also an experience unto itself.  In a “typical” year, there are lines of voters lining the steps.  This past Tuesday, there was one person.

Driving the five minutes back home, I did not feel like I had made much of a difference.  I was voter #937 for the Dodge County side of town, which I guess was pretty impressive. No one at home discussed the election afterwards – which, believe me, is very surprising. We went, we did our civic duty, and that was the end of it.