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Amid coronavirus outbreak, Wisconsin election still on for Tuesday despite stay home order and a massive poll worker shortage

Poll worker Jon Becker, left, assists a woman taking advantage of drive-up voting on March 27, 2020 in Madison, Wisconsin. Voters who are high-risk for COVID-19 can register to vote and/or cast their ballot from their vehicle. High-risk populations include older adults and people with chronic health conditions.
Poll worker Jon Becker, left, assists a woman taking advantage of drive-up voting on March 27, 2020 in Madison, Wisconsin. Voters who are high-risk for COVID-19 can register to vote and/or cast their ballot from their vehicle. High-risk populations include older adults and people with chronic health conditions. (Mark Hoffman/Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel)

Thousands of poll workers have said they won’t work. Hundreds of voting locations have been consolidated. Tens of thousands of requests for mail-in absentee ballots are backlogged.

Wisconsin’s voting system is teetering under the weight of the coronavirus pandemic, but Tuesday’s election is still scheduled to go on as planned after Republican state legislative leaders on Saturday rejected the Democratic governor’s eleventh hour call to postpone voting and a federal judge ruled against rescheduling it.

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Ballots will be cast even as Gov. Tony Evers has issued a “safer at home” order directing Wisconsinites only to venture outside for essential tasks such as seeking medical treatment, buying food and, apparently, voting.

“We are in an unprecedented moment, and the statutes and laws weren’t written with a situation like this in mind," said Charles Franklin, a political science scholar and director of polling at the Marquette University Law School. “We have had a gigantic surge in request of absentee ballots — more than 1 million — and we have no idea at this moment how many of those will get sent out in time or how many people will show up in person on Tuesday to vote. This is uncharted water.”

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Early voters cast their ballots at the Frank P. Zeidler Municipal Building on March 18, 2020, in Milwaukee. Wisconsin officials have not postponed the April 7 presidential primary because of the coronavirus.
Early voters cast their ballots at the Frank P. Zeidler Municipal Building on March 18, 2020, in Milwaukee. Wisconsin officials have not postponed the April 7 presidential primary because of the coronavirus. (Morry Gash/AP)

For the last decade, Wisconsin’s state government has been dominated by a bitter partisan divide, but for weeks Evers, a Democrat, and the Republicans in the state legislature had agreed on one thing — voters should head to the polls Tuesday.

That changed late Friday when Evers reversed course, saying he now opposed in-person voting on Tuesday, and called state lawmakers to Madison for an emergency legislative session late Saturday afternoon. The governor asked legislators to vote to shutter polling places, mail every voter in the state a ballot by May 19 and extend the deadline for local clerks to receive those ballots until May 26.

Evers’ proposal effectively would delay the election by more than a month.

“Here’s the bottom line, folks: If, as elected officials, we’re going to expect the people of our state to make sacrifices to keep all of us safe, then, by golly, we better be willing to do our part too,” the first-term governor said. “I am calling the legislature into a special session to do its part — just as all of us are — to help keep our neighbors, our families and our communities safe.”

Republicans showed up on Saturday, gaveled the legislature into session for just seconds before adjourning without taking up the governor’s proposal. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, slammed Evers for “flip-flopping” on the election, painting him as a “feckless” leader who “caves under political pressures from national liberal special interest groups.”

“Hundreds of thousands of workers are going to their jobs every day, serving in essential roles in our society," the Republican leaders said in a statement. “There’s no question that an election is just as important as getting take-out food.”

Perhaps the only recourse now left for Evers to keep voters from crowding into a limited number of election sites on Tuesday would be to issue an emergency public health order to close all of Wisconsin’s polling places.

A source close to Evers not authorized to speak publicly about the matter said Saturday that the governor and his lawyers are considering that option, but they worry about the possible precedent such a move would set. The attorneys have stressed that there is no state case law upholding the governor’s emergency powers as superseding the state legislature, and the move would lead to an immediate court challenge from Republican lawmakers.

Wisconsin’s seven-member state Supreme Court has five conservative members and two liberals, so a lawsuit over an order to close the polls could risk a precedent that would hamstring other future emergency actions Evers might want to take to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, the source said. One of the court’s Republican members is on the ballot Tuesday for a 10-year term and likely would recuse himself from any such decision.

Katherine Katsekes, left, and Diane Scott, both paid volunteers, help sort absentee ballots by ward to be opened on Election Day at Brookfield City Hall on March 31, 2020. Many Wisconsin communities are having a steady stream of residents voting early.
Katherine Katsekes, left, and Diane Scott, both paid volunteers, help sort absentee ballots by ward to be opened on Election Day at Brookfield City Hall on March 31, 2020. Many Wisconsin communities are having a steady stream of residents voting early. (Rick Wood/Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel)

Barring any last-minute changes, Wisconsin will soldier on at a time when 15 other states either have delayed their elections or switched them entirely to vote-by-mail with later deadlines.

But unlike many of those elections, Wisconsin’s contest isn’t just a presidential primary between former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. It is also a general election for 3,831 local offices — including Milwaukee mayor, Milwaukee County executive and a state Supreme Court seat — where elected officials’ terms are set to expire in a matter of weeks.

Amid the pandemic, thousands of poll workers — many of them elderly and more at risk of dying from the highly contagious COVID-19 — have said they won’t work, and the governor has directed the Wisconsin National Guard to help staff election sites. Numerous elected leaders, including longtime Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, have urged voters not to go to the polls and instead try to vote absentee.

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The wave of those mail-in requests, however, has overwhelmed local clerks who haven’t had the staff, and in some cases the supplies, to promptly send out the ballots, raising questions of whether thousands of voters will receive them in time.

In the middle of the chaos, dozens of local mayors, civil rights organizations, Sanders, the state Democratic Party and the Democratic National Committee have called for the election to be postponed — some more recently than others. And Democrats announced Thursday they would delay by one month their national convention planned for July in Milwaukee, citing the uncertainty swirling around the pandemic.

After weeks of Evers and state legislative leaders refusing to bend on the election, the matter landed before an exasperated U.S. District Judge William Conley.

In a ruling issued Thursday, Conley did not postpone the election, but granted an additional six days for absentee ballots to come in from voters. The state Democratic Party called the court’s decision a victory for “thousands of Wisconsin voters who feared they would be silenced.”

Wisconsin Republicans turned to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which declined late Friday to stay the lower court’s ruling. On Saturday, the state party and the Republican National Committee filed an emergency request with the U.S. Supreme Court to put a hold on the lower court’s absentee ballot ruling.

During a marathon, four-hour video conference hearing Wednesday, Conley said he did not have the authority to call off a statewide election, but did little to conceal his disdain about the predicament voters have been placed in: don’t vote or risk your health to do so.

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“The state of Wisconsin’s legislature and governor are not willing to step up and say there’s a public health crisis and make it absolutely clear that we should not be allowing poll workers and voters to congregate on April 7,” Conley said. “You expect the state of Wisconsin to realize this is a hurricane and prevent it and stop it for public health reasons. I don’t see a basis on which I can stop this, albeit it’s a very risky decision by the state of Wisconsin.”

‘Unicorn wishes’

The state’s poll worker shortage is severe.

Of 1,320 voting jurisdictions that responded to a recent survey by the Wisconsin Elections Commission, 779 — or roughly 60% — said they did not have enough poll workers. Of that total, 111 jurisdictions reported not having enough workers to staff even a single polling place, while another 126 said they did not have enough workers for all election sites.

All told, the elections commission reported a shortage of at least 7,000 workers statewide.

“What are we going to tell voters in these locations if we don’t have poll workers for them? Sorry, we’re not having an election today?” state election Commissioner Ann S. Jacobs, a Democrat from Milwaukee, said during a video conference meeting this week. “We are pretending with our fingers crossed and unicorn wishes that we’re going to be able to cobble together a way to administer this election.”

Brenda Jones checks over her ballot as she votes absentee during drive-up early voting in Milwaukee on March 28, 2020.
Brenda Jones checks over her ballot as she votes absentee during drive-up early voting in Milwaukee on March 28, 2020. (Rick Wood/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

In response to the staffing woes, some areas have dramatically consolidated the number of polling locations, potentially crowding more voters in one space at a time when health officials are preaching for them to stay home and maintain social distancing of at least 6 feet when in public.

In Milwaukee, 180 polling sites will be cut down to five. Suburban Waukesha has cut its 13 election sites to just one. In Green Bay, the 270 typical poll workers are down to only 19, and the city is considering reducing its 31 polling places to just two high school gymnasiums.

To fill the void, the state’s Democratic and Republican parties are working to recruit workers. Evers sent out a call for state employees to staff the polls and has directed the Wisconsin National Guard to help work the election.

Milwaukee’s election commission, however, has rejected the National Guard help, saying it’s too late to train workers. Evers spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff called it “insulting” that Milwaukee would deem the troops incapable of working the polls and noted the state’s election commission and the Guard already have coordinated on election training.

Milwaukee has told state officials it is short 650 workers, and the National Guard has 609 available to work the polls there, according to figures shared with the Tribune by a state source. The National Guard also has enough troops to cover an 150 worker shortage in Racine County, the 50 workers needed in Waukesha, 773 of the 800 needed in Dane County and 314 of the 400 needed in Brown County, which is home to Green Bay.

It remained unclear Saturday how many members of the National Guard would be called upon Tuesday.

“If we would have had swift action by our state officials, we could have maintained the April 7 date while at the same time administering an all-mail ballot election,” said Green Bay Mayor Eric Genrich, who previously served as a Democrat in the state assembly. “When you look at the public health guidance from D.C. all the way down to our local county, it’s not hard to recognize that an in-person election is incompatible with that advice."

After urging the governor and legislature to take action, Green Bay sued last month in federal court to postpone the election and have ballots mailed to every registered voter, but the case was dismissed after the judge ruled the city didn’t have the standing to delay a statewide election.

Nearby, Neenah Mayor Dean Kaufert and Appleton Mayor Timothy Hanna, both Republicans, also joined Genrich in calling for a delay. So did election officials for all 19 municipalities in Milwaukee County and many others across the state.

“The starkest divide, honestly, is between those who are elected locally and those who are not,” Genrich said. “Those of us who are tasked with administering this election and assisting our clerks are very practical about the challenges we face."

In a bid to improve the safety of polling locations, state elections commission Administrator Meagan Wolfe said the commission has acquired 6,000 liter bottles of hand sanitizer, 10,000 spray bottles of sanitizer, 750,000 isopropyl wipes and enough pens for every voter to have their own, all sorted by the state’s National Guard. Tape also is being sent to voting sites to mark the recommended 6 feet between voters waiting in line.

Luz Quinonez-Hurd directs cars to line up as drive-up early voting in Milwaukee started on March 28, 2020 with a steady stream of cars lined up around City Hall and drivers getting ballots inside their cars.
Luz Quinonez-Hurd directs cars to line up as drive-up early voting in Milwaukee started on March 28, 2020 with a steady stream of cars lined up around City Hall and drivers getting ballots inside their cars. (Rick Wood/AP)

A new Marquette University Law School poll released Wednesday found voters nearly split on whether to postpone the election, with 51% in favor of holding it Tuesday and 44% opposed. The survey, however, found a divide when it comes to the coronavirus, with 87% of Democrats saying they were very concerned about the disease compared with 56% of Republicans.

“I think the safety best practice precautions for the polling places are very, very good,” state election Commissioner Robert Spindell Jr., a Milwaukee Republican, said during the recent meeting. “I’m very happy in terms of what’s going on here, and I think we can have a good election on the 7th.”

The six-person commission, made up of three members from each party, held a number of deadlocked votes in recent days, including on whether to urge the federal court to keep the election on Tuesday.

“To say everything is going to be fine on April 7 is sticking our head in the sand," said Commissioner Mark Thomsen, a Milwaukee Democrat. “We know there are going to be tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of ballots that have been voted that are going to come back and not get counted."

‘Rigging an election’

Democrats repeatedly raised concerns about absentee ballots in recent days.

After the DNC filed its lawsuit, Judge Conley last week extended the amount of time for voters to register online.

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His ruling Thursday gives election officials an extra six days to receive ballots, moving the deadline from when the polls close on Tuesday until April 13, the following Monday. The judge, whom former President Barack Obama appointed, also pushed the deadline for voters to request an absentee ballot back an extra day, until 5 p.m. Friday.

More than 1.25 million absentee ballots had been requested as of Saturday, far more than the previous record of around 200,000 in the 2016 presidential primary.

State election officials also reported late last week there was close to a 30,000 ballot backlog but warned that number could be much higher as voting jurisdictions have lagged in reporting their totals. The state numbers showed Brown County, home to Green Bay, as having a backlog of 1,400 ballots on Thursday, but in the city alone the mayor said the number was 7,000.

The sheer volume of absentee ballots and the additional time granted by the court means local officials will not be allowed to post election results until April 13.

In his ruling Thursday, Conley also relaxed a witness requirement for absentee ballot applications, concluding that voters could provide a written testimonial that they could not safely obtain a witness signature because of coronavirus fears. The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, however, stayed that decision late Friday, saying the lower court had not weighed how that change might allow for voter fraud.

In his ruling, Conley rejected efforts to suspend the state’s voter ID law, which requires voters to digitally upload a copy of their ID when requesting an absentee ballot.

Republicans already had scored a legal victory on that issue this week. The law has an exception for those who are “indefinitely confined” and unable to obtain an ID, largely intended for elderly citizens.

Last week, the clerks in Milwaukee and Dane counties, the state’s two Democratic strongholds, told all voters who were unable to upload an ID to claim they are indefinitely confined because of the coronavirus. The Wisconsin Republican Party equated the guidance to “illegally rigging an election” and sued in the state’s Supreme Court, which ruled unanimously that the advice was against the law.

In the run up to Thursday’s federal court ruling, Wisconsin Republicans argued against a dramatic change in the amount of time allowed to count absentee ballots.

“We’ve already had to go to the court once to rein in a couple of rogue clerks,” Wisconsin Republican Party Chairman Andrew Hitt said in an interview. " I wouldn’t have a lot of confidence that they would follow the letter of the law."

Conley’s ruling to allow the extra six days for the absentee ballots to be returned without requiring them to be postmarked by Election Day “effectively changes the date of the election,” Hitt said.

Workers are seen outside the Frank P. Zeidler Municipal Building in Milwaukee on March 30, 2020.
Workers are seen outside the Frank P. Zeidler Municipal Building in Milwaukee on March 30, 2020. (Morry Gash/AP)

In an interview prior to the ruling, Wisconsin Democratic Party Chairman Ben Wikler accused Republicans of “trying to hold the election the normal way, right away” in a bid to suppress voter turnout.

“The polling suggests that Republicans are less likely to be concerned about coronavirus than Democrats,” Wikler said of in-person voting on Tuesday. “Whether you’re Republican or Democrat, we should be taking every possible step to help everyone cast safe absentee ballots.”

For now, voting is on track to take place under the conditions of Conley’s ruling that allows for additional time to send and count absentee ballots but leaves the day of the election in place — much to his own frustration.

“Without doubt, the April 7 election day will create unprecedented burdens not just for aspiring voters, but also for poll workers, clerks and indeed the state,” Conley wrote in his opinion. “As much as the court would prefer that the Wisconsin legislature and governor consider the public health ahead of any political considerations, that does not appear in the cards.”

Twitter @BillRuthhart

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