‘It’s all been so surreal’: City officials reflect on election during pandemic

MADISON, Wis. – After a chaotic lead-up to Tuesday’s election, communities adapted to accommodate in-person voting during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s all been so surreal,” City of Madison Clerk Maribeth Witzel-Behl said, adding that it’s been an election like no other, with reduced polling places, poll workers and turnout.

“Turnout is bleak compared to previous years,” Witzel-Behl said.

Things on the increase this election include shields, masks and, according to Witzel-Behl, angry callers.

“Voters have a right to be angry,” she said.

Witzel-Behl said many still hadn’t received requested absentee ballots this Election Day even though they’d been mailed a week ago, leaving them no option but to vote in person, or if they’re quarantined at home, not at all.

“We have no other options at the local level,” Witzel-Behl said. “We have to follow what we’ve been told by the Legislature and Supreme Court of our state and the U.S. Supreme Court.”

In Middleton, city officials made changes, too. The usual four polling locations were consolidated to one at Kromrey Middle School.

“It’s been a low turnout compared to what it normally would be,” City Administrator Mike Davis said.

This election, Davis said a large amount of absentee ballots will likely make up for decreased in-person voting and push Middleton above its count of 8,500 voters who took part in 2016’s presidential primary.

“The city really pushed to get people to vote absentee,” he said. “I thought it went pretty well given the circumstances, and that’s because of the absentee ballots.”

In Madison, Witzel-Behl said the percentage of returned absentee ballots was down compared to the last presidential primary, with about 92% returned to be counted on Election Day in 2016, compared to 65% by Tuesday.

“We’re just hoping to bounce back from this election so we have enough resilience to take on November,” Witzel-Behl said.

Voting results won’t come in until Monday.