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By John Whitesides
April 13 (Reuters) - Liberal challenger Jill Karofsky won a hotly contested race for the Wisconsin Supreme Court on Monday, beating a conservative incumbent in state elections marred by court challenges and worries about health risks from the coronavirus pandemic.
Karofsky upset Dan Kelly, who was endorsed by Republican President Donald Trump, for a 10-year court term that could help decide future voting rights and redistricting issues in Wisconsin, a vital general election battleground.
The Supreme Court race highlighted a slate of thousands of elections held last week for state and local offices, as well as a presidential primary. The release of the results was delayed by court order until Monday, the deadline for receiving absentee ballots.
Democrats said a flurry of Republican legal challenges blocking efforts to postpone last Tuesday's in-person voting had backfired badly, but added that the voting should never have happened.
"Despite the result, the fact that this in-person election took place was a searing loss for Wisconsin. Today's results don't tell us how many people were exposed to coronavirus at polling places, how many were infected or how many will die," said Ben Wikler, chairman of the Wisconsin Democratic Party.
The tumultuous process in Wisconsin, which featured an explosion in absentee balloting and long lines of voters braving health risks and stay-at-home orders, was seen as a potential preview of the national election in November if the pandemic lingers.
State Republicans had warned of possible fraud and administrative issues if the elections were delayed. But Democrats said Republicans were primarily motivated to keep down turnout in the race, particularly in Democratic-dominated urban areas such as Milwaukee, where a lack of workers meant the closure of all but five of the city's usual 180 polling places.
Karofsky more than doubled Kelly's vote totals in Milwaukee, and outpaced recent Democratic performances in many rural and more conservative counties in an encouraging sign for Democrats looking toward the Nov. 3 general election.
The result narrows to 4-3 the conservative majority on the non-partisan Wisconsin Supreme Court, with the next seat up for election in 2023. The court is expected soon to decide a case that seeks to purge more than 200,000 people from Wisconsin's voter rolls.
SPECIAL CONGRESSIONAL ELECTION LOOMS
Spurred by worries about health risks from voting in person, a record-high nearly 1.3 million absentee ballots were requested for the elections, state officials said. Some residents who requested absentee ballots said they never received them.
The state elections commission reported that as of Monday, more than 11,600 voters requested an absentee ballot and were never sent one, and more than 185,000 ballots were sent to voters but not returned.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez said in a Monday press call that the decision to hold in-person voting last week amounted to "voter suppression on steroids," forcing thousands of voters to choose between casting a ballot or staying at home to avoid infection.
The DNC called for Wisconsin's next election, a special congressional race scheduled for May 12, to be entirely conducted by mail.
The election turmoil overshadowed the Wisconsin Democratic presidential primary between former Vice President Joe Biden and his then-last remaining rival, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders.
Biden, who became the likely Democratic nominee to face Trump in November's election when Sanders dropped out last week, was projected to win easily by the Associated Press.
Sanders dropped out the day after the Wisconsin voting was finished, and endorsed Biden on Monday. (Reporting by John Whitesides in Washington; Editing by Peter Cooney)
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