Some election clerks are so short of workers because of the coronavirus pandemic that they are planning to shutter polling places around Wisconsin — including many of them in Milwaukee.
And at least one clerk is warning that some voters in the April 7 election won’t be able to return their absentee ballots in time to have them counted.
Milwaukee needs about 1,400 poll workers to run its election but so far has fewer than 400, according to Neil Albrecht, director of the Milwaukee Election Commission. Another 300 workers are needed for the central location where absentee ballots are processed, but fewer than 50 had been hired as of last week.
Training those poll workers is difficult because health officials say people must stay 6 feet away from one another to slow the spread of coronavirus.
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“Given the inability to train new poll workers, it is virtually certain that we will lack sufficient poll workers to staff the polling locations across the city, and will likewise lack the requisite number of staff members to process absentee ballots at the central count location,” Albrecht said in a court filing last week.
As a result, the city likely won’t be able to staff all its voting locations, “leaving mail-in absentee voting as the only means currently by which Milwaukee voters will be able to vote for the spring election scheduled to occur on April 7,” Albrecht said.
The election is shaping up to be like no other in decades. On the ballot is the presidential primary as well as races for state Supreme Court and local offices, including Milwaukee mayor and Milwaukee County executive.
Around the state, clerks are working overtime to deal with the challenges, from managing the flood of absentee ballot requests to training replacements for poll workers who are fearful of working election day to outfitting their offices to reduce the possibility of the virus spreading.
It’s hard to generalize about their experiences because the state’s army of local election clerks represents more than 1,800 municipalities of all sizes, but challenges are cropping up all over.
Waukesha announced Monday that because it has lost so many poll workers to concerns about the virus, it would conduct election-day voting at one location instead of 13. That one location will be the city’s recreation center, a space large enough that officials believe it can provide the necessary social distancing.
Instead of the 300 or so volunteer poll workers the city might have for all its polling locations, it expects to have only about 40 to 50.
“Every day, I get more emails from people asking to pull out, which is totally understandable,” said Gina Kozlik, Waukesha’s clerk-treasurer.
“We’re putting other things in place” for election day, Kozlik said. “Our team is working on screens with Plexiglas” and cones to control the flow of walk-in traffic.
The city is urging voters to request an absentee ballot and vote by mail, though it is a separate challenge to keep up with those requests. It is only accommodating in-person early voting by appointment.
“It’s quick,” Kozlik said of the sudden transformation that communities have had to manage in conducting elections. “Everybody’s being creative … I really think we’re doing some of our best work.”
Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway said election workers are overwhelmed and some voters aren’t going to be able to cast ballots because of the pandemic. She wants the election postponed.
“We all believe in a free and fair democracy and we want everyone to have the ability to exercise their right to vote,” she said. “We also all believe everyone should be able to stay healthy while they’re doing so, and right now those two things are in conflict.”
The city has been able to fill about half the election-day shifts it says it needs and can’t use at least 14 of its 92 polling places because of coronavirus concerns, according to City Clerk Maribeth Witzel-Behl.
Absentee votes at risk
Responding to absentee ballot requests is taking a week even though state law requires absentee ballots to be sent within 48 hours.
Witzel-Behl estimated Madison would receive more than 1,000 absentee ballots after the polls close on election day — too late to be counted.
“Under the current law, all of those voters will be disenfranchised — their votes won’t count,” Witzel-Behl said in a court filing.
All these challenges are emerging as clerks and poll workers worry they could be exposed to a disease that has killed thousands around the world.
“Poll workers for the City of Madison and other election officials are facing the same dilemma: Do we perform our obligations to run a full and fair election and risk contracting a possibly fatal illness, or do we decline to assist in the election to stay healthy?” Witzel-Behl said in her filing.
State election officials are buying more hand sanitizer and setting guidelines to keep poll workers apart from others as much as possible. But members of the Wisconsin Election Commission have expressed misgivings about their plan.
“I don’t think we should be saying to anyone that as long as you follow these (steps), you’ll be safe,” Commissioner Mark Thomsen said. “I don’t think we can tell the public that it’s going to be safe on April 7. And I don’t know how we’re going to man the polls.”
“I think we’re at a crisis and I think it’s imperative on the Legislature and the governor to do something to help us solve this problem,” he added.
Dean Knudson, the chairman of the commission, didn’t say he wanted an intervention from the Legislature or Gov. Tony Evers but said it was “essential” to get at least 75% of voters to use mail-in ballots.
“We want to make this election as safe as we can — it’s our job and our duty to administer laws of the State of Wisconsin,” he said. “Nothing is completely safe.”
In Brookfield, historically one of the highest-turnout communities in Wisconsin, officials are going to great lengths to prepare for election day. They have recruited and trained both volunteers and city employees on hiatus and others furloughed from their work to replace regular poll workers (many of them in their 60s and 70s) who have declined to work the polls this year because of health concerns.
“All I need them to do is not get sick,” Brookfield City Clerk Kelly Michaels said of her replacement poll workers.
The city is moving its election-day operations into the bigger Brookfield Conference Center for a variety of logistical reasons. It will have city sanitation crews on hand to disinfect surfaces. Other personnel will open and close doors for voters so they don’t touch the door handles. Local businesses have donated hand sanitizer.
“It’s not anything I have a gamebook for, but I do have 30 years of election experience and I’m working really hard … (people from the city) have all come together to help,” Michaels said.
Michaels said she doesn’t know how long it will take to count absentee ballots on election night because the city has never had to do it on this scale before.
“I can speak for all clerks. We’re doing the best we can. We hope that people will be patient with us,” she said.
Jo Ann Lesser, clerk-treasurer for Random Lake in Sheboygan County, said her village installed a Plexiglas shield at the village office Monday to create a barrier between staff and visitors.
She spent her Monday morning processing the accumulated weekend’s worth of absentee ballot requests.
Asked whether she was worried about election-day voting, she said, “You’re concerned for your workers’ safety and for the people coming in to vote.”
She would normally have two election-day shifts of seven poll workers for each shift, but “I am having trouble filling those slots,” she said.
“You have trepidation … it would be foolish not to. But we’re constantly talking about it and formulating our plans and just trying to do the best we can,” she said.
Barbara Goeckner, a past president of the Wisconsin Municipal Clerks Association, said her biggest concerns are the health of election staff and voters, and the fact that any protective gear that poll workers end up using is gear that won’t be available to doctors and nurses and people in health care.
“Do we protect our own health, or do we stand by our oath and perform our duties?” Goeckner, a local election clerk in Dane County, said of the choice faced by election workers.
“The average age of poll workers is over 60 and many are well over 70. … A lot of them will still work, but should they really be making that choice? A lot of them are very dedicated people and they will do whatever it takes to make an election happen,” Goeckner said.
Court rulings awaited
The court filings from the election officials in Milwaukee and Madison were submitted as part of a lawsuit brought by Souls to the Polls and other voter mobilization groups seeking to delay the election.
U.S. District Judge William Conley over the weekend combined that lawsuit with two others — one brought by Democrats to extend absentee voting and one brought by the League of Women Voters to loosen absentee voting rules because the pandemic has kept so many people in their homes.
Also over the weekend, Conley allowed the Republican National Committee and state Republican Party to participate in the cases. He declined to let the Republican-controlled Legislature intervene.
And in recent days, the governor hired attorney Daniel Bach of Lawton & Cates to represent state election officials in the lawsuits — instead of the state Department of Justice. Bach served as the top deputy to former Democratic Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager.
Conley is expected to issue key decisions in the lawsuits in the coming days.
Separately, the state Republican Party has asked the state Supreme Court to take up a lawsuit over whether voters who are confined to their homes because of the pandemic can get absentee ballots without providing a copy of a photo ID. The justices haven’t decided whether to accept the case.
Molly Beck of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.
Contact Patrick Marley at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @patrickdmarley.
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