Voters in Wisconsin, a key swing state in the cliffhanger US presidential election, say they don’t expect violence in their immediate neighbourhood – but could see it erupting down the road.
As the presidency comes down to a few tens of thousands of votes in a handful of states, the race in Wisconsin with its 10 electoral votes has assumed outsize importance. Democrat Joe Biden currently leads President Donald Trump by 49.4 per cent to 48.8 per cent, or approximately 20,000 votes out of more 3.2 million votes counted, according to CNN, which has called the state for Biden.
The Trump campaign said it would demand a recount, citing “reports of irregularities”, as is its right when the margin of victory is less than a percentage point of the total votes. Former Governor Scott Walker, a Republican, suggested in a tweet on Wednesday that Biden’s lead was too large to be overturned, citing two past recounts in the state. “20,000 is a high hurdle,” he wrote.
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On Wednesday, there were no reports of election-related violence in the state. But Wisconsin knows first-hand how quickly social order can collapse amid inflamed passions. In late August, downtown Kenosha saw days of protests and violence after a white police officer shot Jacob Blake, an African-American, in the back. As word spread, armed militia members descended on the city, the National Guard was activated and a state of emergency declared.
Two days after Blake was paralysed by police bullets, three African-American protesters were shot, two fatally, by white 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse, authorities said. The teenager’s lawyers have argued that he did so in self-defence.
“What happened in Kenosha is very sad,” city resident Lisa Perry said after voting for Trump, adding that she hoped there would not be a repeat of the violence. “What an unfortunate situation.”
In Milwaukee, 40 miles south along Lake Michigan, Richard Fears, volunteer chief inspector for the Ward 117 polling location in this primarily African-American neighbourhood, said he saw little chance of violence in this north side area but did see a significant risk west of the city.
“That area is tense, a lot more than here in the city,” said Fears, a security guard, who has overseen 14 elections in Milwaukee and considers this his most precarious. “Whoever is the presumed winner, if Trump loses, there may be some violence. If Biden, probably not.”
“The risk is definitely in the suburbs, not in Milwaukee,” added Fears, who said some suburbs were rife with white supremacists.
“You could see people go out on the streets, on the highways, you’ll see pickup trucks with guys in red Maga hats, Trump supporters,” said Fears, referring to Trump’s Make America Great Again slogan. “You do something with the wrong person, a lot of these people are heavily armed.”
In city’s western suburbs, however, voters said the biggest source of trouble was likely from downtown Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s largest city.
“People are preparing for the worst, the big cities are boarded up and we’re concerned about riots,” said Sarah Re, 23, a restaurant worker, as she wrapped up voting at the St Luke Catholic Church in Waukesha county, which went heavily for Trump. “I think it’s mainly the cities.”
Re, who voted for Biden, said she was reluctant to talk about her choice publicly given impassioned local pro-Trump support and the effect it can have on friendships and even her tips at work. She also said she anticipated a “little bit of chaos” over the next three or four days.
Re said she decided to cast her ballot in person to make sure it counted, given fears that partisans could try to disqualify mail-in votes. “I feel like our country is split into groups,” she said. “I don’t think that will change, but I’m hoping for the best.”
In downtown Kenosha, meanwhile, retired medical records executive Bonnie Hausfeld said this election was historic for all the wrong reasons. “Hopefully it will be fair, but I don’t think so,” she said, wearing a white surgical mask as she emerged from her polling station at the Kenosha Public Museum. “The Republicans are using laws, intimidation, contesting everything. I’m 80 and I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Hausfeld said she opted to vote in person to ensure it was handled securely at a time when critics have accused Louis DeJoy, the Trump administration’s postmaster general, of deliberately slowing down mail service to impede absentee voting by Democrats.
“I don’t trust the new postmaster general. I think he’s an idiot,” she said. “I think there might be trouble. I don’t worry for myself because the right person will win out.”
In her mind, the right person is not Trump, she said pointedly, adding that she thought the president was corrupt, disrespectful, “a dummy” and quick to scapegoat others, including China for the pandemic.
“It’s a virus, not a certain country’s virus. I was in health care for 50 years, that’s ridiculous,” she said. “I think Biden will be mediocre. But I’d rather get rid of Trump, who would only do more damage with another four years. If there was a recall, I’d put myself forward.”
Emmanuel Ferrer, an 18-year-old first time voter from suburban Brookfield, said he saw no easy way out. “I think there will be a little violence, frankly, no matter which way it goes,” he said. “There’s a lot of unrest.”
As he headed for his car after voting, Max, a 25-year-old education worker who declined to give his last name, bemoaned how badly this election made America look in the eyes of the world, with unfolding problems likely to make it worse.
“I don’t think this will be pretty,” he said. “In fact, I think it will be awful. I think there could be violence, riots, something is not good, maybe court cases, a recount, no one is going to accept it. It won’t be smooth, it will be a nail-biting experience.”
He added: “I guess there were signs, but I never thought it would get this bad.”
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