Wisconsin set to hold more elections during coronavirus pandemic, as clerks scramble to ensure safety

Many states have postponed elections or moved to all-mail in voting. Wisconsin’s 1,850 municipal clerks must figure out how to hold safe in-person balloting.
Wisconsin Voters
The voting line wraps around the block outside Washington High School in Milwaukee during the primary election on April 7, 2020. A top civil rights advocate called Wisconsin’s election a “travesty that put voters in the crosshairs of having to choose between their safety and their vote.”
Credit: Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Watch

By Chelsea Hylton, Francisco Velazquez and Dee J. Hall for Wisconsin Watch

Tamia Fowlkes of Milwaukee was among thousands of voters in Wisconsin who reluctantly went to the polls on April 7.

Fowlkes had voted absentee — like more than a million other voters in the state — but then helped her grandfather cast his ballot in person after the state Supreme Court ruled that Gov. Tony Evers lacked the authority to delay the election because of the pandemic.

WCIJ- A picture of Tamia Fowlkes

University of Wisconsin-Madison student Tamia Fowles, who worked to sign up student voters, says the atmosphere at a Milwaukee polling place was tense on April 7, 2020 as thousands of voters lined up to cast ballots during the pandemic.

Credit: Courtesy of Tamia Fowlkes

“We were the only state in the entire country to have an (in-person) April primary,” said Fowlkes, a University of Wisconsin-Madison student active in registering students to vote. “I don’t know if there was any way to make it safe, because it just wasn’t something that we should have been doing.”

Last week, state officials said as many as 52 people — including National Guard members, voters and poll workers — developed COVID-19 after in-person voting, although it is possible they were exposed in other ways. That day, voters chose former Vice President Joe Biden as the state’s Democratic selection for president and liberal judge Jill Karofsky to join the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

On May 12, voters in central and northern Wisconsin will again be asked to cast ballots during a pandemic, this time to replace U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy in the sprawling 7th Congressional District.

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Voters in Wisconsin’s 7th Congressional District have a special election May 12. Officials are urging residents to vote absentee because of the pandemic.

Credit:Sam Buisman / Wisconsin Watch

More clerks than normal have either retired or quit in recent weeks, she said — an unusual step during a presidential election year. The Wisconsin Elections Commission says 244 National Guard troops will work at polling sites on May 12, and truckloads of sanitizer, gloves and masks went out to the counties in the 7th District last week. Evers’ Safer at Home order is in effect until May 26.

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A bottle of hand sanitizer is seen at the polling location at Sevastopol Town Hall in Sevastopol, Wis., during the election on April 7, 2020. Poll workers like Kim Flok, left, and Dennis Schartner, right, were instructed to wipe down surfaces every 10 minutes.

Credit: Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Watch

“As long as this coronavirus threat is out there, you’re going to have employees who are not comfortable dealing with the public — and you can’t force them,” Coenen said.

Because of the pandemic, just three of the 15 sworn poll workers are willing to work the May 12 election in Thorp, a city of 1,800 in Clark County, Wis., said Marie Karaba, an administrative assistant for the city. Karaba said voter turnout is “absolutely depressed because of this pandemic and also due to this being the only contest on the ballot.”

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Poll worker Jill Leonard wears a face mask at the polling place at Sevastopol Town Hall in Sevastopol, Wis., during the election on April 7, 2020. For the second time during the pandemic, voters in central and northern Wisconsin will head to the polls on May 12, this time to vote in a special election to fill the 7th Congressional District seat.

Credit: Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Watch

Said Coenen: “Those clerks, staff, volunteers, poll workers that are manning the polls — they’re going to be at risk twice. That’s pretty heart-wrenching, when you think about it. We are doing our jobs, but we have never faced these types of circumstances.”

Is mail-in voting the answer?

Coenen is recommending that municipal clerks encourage voters to cast absentee ballots to reduce the risks inherent in in-person voting. But without more help — financially and otherwise —  clerks in upcoming elections may not be able to manage the “avalanche” of absentee ballots, she said.

An investigation by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the PBS series FRONTLINE and Columbia Journalism Investigations found widespread failures in absentee balloting on April 7, including ballots requested but never received, empty envelopes containing no ballots and multiple ballots sent to the same person.

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Instructions for requesting an absentee ballot include the photo ID requirement on this mailer from the Republican Party of Wisconsin. But the postcard does not include a mechanism for submitting the required identification.

Credit: Rob Mentzer / WPR

The U.S. Postal Service — which is struggling under the weight of the pandemic — also is investigating why scores of absentee ballots in eastern Wisconsin were sent to the post office but never delivered to voters.

In Coenen’s Waukesha County city, Oconomowoc, 15% of people voted absentee in 2016. In April, that surged to about 85%, she said.

Processing that amount of absentee balloting “is just not anything we’re prepared for,” Coenen said. “We can’t do this every election. It’s just unrealistic.”

 WCIJ- A graph about the growing number of mail voting among Democrats

In the April election, nearly 4,700 absentee ballots were rejected because they were received by election officials after the April 13 deadline, according to Wisconsin Elections Commission statistics cited in a federal court filing last week by Democrats. And nearly 12,000 absentee ballots that were received were rejected for having insufficient witness certifications — a requirement that was imposed, waived and then reimposed during a last-minute court battle.

Citing the pandemic, the state and national Democratic parties are asking that Wisconsin be temporarily required to extend deadlines and loosen requirements for absentee ballots and registration.

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U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore, D-Milwaukee, says forcing voters to cast ballots in person during a pandemic is “the ultimate in voter suppression.”

Credit: U.S. House of Representatives

The defendants — the Elections Commission, the state and national Republican parties and the state Legislature — have asked the U.S. District Court in Madison to dismiss the case as “moot,” arguing that the April 7 election the lawsuit originally sought to delay is now over.

University of Wisconsin-Madison student Synovia Knox was among the many Wisconsin voters who tried but was unable to vote by mail last month. Knox said she requested an absentee ballot that did not arrive in time.

“My biggest concern was the spread of germs,” Knox said. “My absentee ballot didn’t show up until the day after voting took place, so I felt like I had no choice.”

She cast her ballot at Madison’s Catholic Multicultural Center, where voters mingled with a long line of people waiting to shop at the food pantry.

Long lines, tension at polls

Wisconsin’s election system, the most decentralized in the country, features a unique trait: The state offers guidelines and support for elections, but it is up to the state’s 1,850 municipal clerks and 72 county clerks to administer them.

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The voting line wraps around the block outside Washington High School in Milwaukee during the primary election on April 7, 2020. A top civil rights advocate called Wisconsin’s election a “travesty that put voters in the crosshairs of having to choose between their safety and their vote.”

Credit: Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Watch

That duty carried new weight on April 7 as clerks scrambled to figure out the best way to make voting safe.

Across Wisconsin, clerks erected plexiglass barriers to separate poll workers from voters. They handed out gloves and masks to workers and provided hand sanitizer to everyone. Many offered curbside voting.

In Milwaukee — which reduced its polling places from 180 to five because of a lack of staff willing to work the election — lines stretched for blocks, causing hours-long waits.

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A poll worker assists a city of Milwaukee employee with check-in at Marshall High School in Milwaukee on April 7, 2020. Wisconsin voters in central and northern Wisconsin head to the polls again during the pandemic to fill the 7th Congressional District seat.

Credit: Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Watch

Fowlkes, the UW-Madison student, described the atmosphere at the Milwaukee polling place she visited as tense, as some people did not honor social distancing.

“People would walk past you on the sidewalk, and you could see people kind of like shifting out of the way or trying to move,” she said.

WCIJ- Jay Romant from the city of Milwaukee Health

Jay Romant from the city of Milwaukee Health Department encourages voters to keep six feet apart from each other outside of Marshall High School in Milwaukee on April 7, 2020. One top civil rights advocate called Wisconsin’s April election a “wake-up call” for the country as it figures out how to hold elections during the pandemic.

Credit: Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Watch

Fowlkes said some of the safety measures made voting more difficult. Milwaukee allowed voters to remain in their vehicles for curbside voting. But the lines of cars became unwieldy.

“There are people who did that and didn’t actually get to vote until like 10 or 11 p.m. that night,” she said. “So even though that option was offered, it wasn’t as effective as it could have been.”

Special election next

The next test of voting during a pandemic will come on May 12, when voters cast ballots in the 7th Congressional District, which sprawls across 26 counties in central and northern Wisconsin. The special election will fill a vacancy left by the resignation of U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy, R-Hayward. The race pits state Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Minoqua, against Wausau School Board member Tricia Zunker, a Democrat who serves on the Ho-Chunk Nation Supreme Court.

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WCIJ- The voting line wraps around the block outside Washington High School in Milwaukee during the election on April 7, 2020. A top civil rights advocate called Wisconsin’s election a “travesty that put voters in the crosshairs of having to choose between their safety and their vote.”

Credit: Coburn Dukehart and Lauren Fuhrmann / Wisconsin Watch

Superior City Clerk Terri Kalan said the city was “slammed” in April by the volume of absentee ballots and lack of poll workers. “We were picking people from wherever we could,” she said.

This time around, “I think everybody’s stir crazy and everybody wants to work now,” Kalan said.

But like many clerks, she is urging Superior residents to avoid in-person voting for the rest of 2020.

“I just really hope people take advantage of that (absentee voting) so people don’t have to stand in line,” Kalan said, adding, “Who knows what conditions will be like in November?”

Chelsea Hylton, Francisco Velazquez and Dee J. Hall reported this story, which was produced as part of an investigative reporting class at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication under the direction of Hall. Wisconsin Watch’s collaborations with journalism students are funded in part by the Ira and Ineva Reilly Baldwin Wisconsin Idea Endowment at UW-Madison. The nonprofit Wisconsin Watch (wisconsinwatch.org) collaborates with WPR, PBS Wisconsin, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

Watch out for absentee ballot mailings — because they may not help you vote

By: Dee J. Hall 

Wisconsin election officials are cautioning voters in the 7th Congressional District to think twice before relying on pre-filled forms sent to their homes to request absentee ballots.

The prepaid postcards — which come from both Republican and progressive organizations — often lack details on how to meet the requirement to present a photo ID to get an absentee ballot, said Reid Magney, a spokesman for the Wisconsin Elections Commission.

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A mailer from the Republican Party of Wisconsin is confusing many voters who miss instructions about voters needing to send in a photo ID to request an absentee ballot.

Credit: Rob Mentzer / WPR

Missing that step can mean missing the May 12 election, he said.

In a webinar with Wisconsin municipal clerks last week, Elections Commission Assistant Administrator Richard Rydecki said the agency had received a lot of complaints about these mailings.

“So you’re not going to honor any requests, no matter who they come from, unless the photo ID is provided, or you already have the photo ID on file, or they’re folks who don’t need to provide photo ID because they’re either a military or permanent overseas voter or they have indicated they’re indefinitely confined,” Rydecki told the clerks.

Wausau City Clerk Leslie Kremer said she has received about 200 postcards in the last week mailed by the Republican Party of Wisconsin. Except for a handful, they did not include a copy of the voter’s photo ID — a requirement in Wisconsin for most absentee ballot requests.

WCIJ-A chart describing the public opinion on absentee voting

That means it is up to clerks to contact voters who dropped the card in the mail without attaching a copy of a driver’s license or other valid ID. Kremer said her office is calling people who included a phone number, and sending letters to those who included only a mailing address on the postcard.

The deadline for requesting absentee ballots in the special election is Thursday — a fact that is advertised prominently on the GOP mailer. If voters wait until the deadline to submit their request — but neglect to include a photo ID — there likely will not be time for clerks to explain the requirement.

At an April 30 webinar with 7th District clerks, elections officials responded to a question about a similar postcard sent out by the Voter Participation Center, which focuses on encouraging voting among young people, people of color and unmarried women.

“We have heard a lot of complaints about this mailer, and we understand that it’s confusing for folks and it’s not doing a great job highlighting the photo ID requirement,” Rydecki said. “We did have a chance to review this before it went out, and we explicitly told them that they needed to make the photo ID requirement more prominent. I’m not sure how well they incorporated our suggestions.”

Voters can visit myvote.wi.gov to request an absentee ballot online. If in doubt about how to vote absentee, Magney said, voters should contact the clerk of their local municipality.