MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin clerks are down nearly 7,000 poll workers and scores of municipalities are so short-staffed because of the coronavirus pandemic that they won’t be able to offer any in-person voting on Election Day, according to a survey that state election officials released Tuesday.
The lack of staffing coupled with an anticipated deluge of absentee ballots led Democratic appointees on the Wisconsin Election Commission to predict that next Tuesday’s election will be a mess.
“We’re proceeding with our fingers crossed and unicorn wishes that we’re going to be able to cobble together a way (to administer) this election,” Commissioner Ann Jacobs said during an emergency meeting Tuesday. “What are we going to tell people when there aren’t any poll workers? Sorry, we’re not having an election today?”
The election features the state’s presidential primary, a state Supreme Court race and hundreds of local races. A number of other states have postponed their primaries to protect voters and poll workers from the coronavirus.
Democratic Gov. Tony Evers initially resisted calls to postpone Wisconsin’s election, saying a delay would create vacancies in local offices with terms that expire in mid-April. It has since become clear that he lacks the power to make unilateral changes to election law. Last week, Evers asked Republican legislative leaders to convene and change the statutes to allow clerks to mail absentee ballots to all registered voters and give clerks more time to count ballots. Republicans refused, saying the election should continue as scheduled.
The lack of poll workers presents a serious problem. The commission asked all 1,850 local jurisdictions over the weekend for an update on staffing levels. The 1,320 jurisdictions that responded reported they were down a total of 6,939 poll works as of Monday, with 111 saying they lacked enough workers to open even a single polling site and another 126 reporting that they didn’t have enough people to staff all their polling sites.
Gina Kozlik, the Waukesha city clerk, posted on her website that the city has gone from 15 polling sites to just one, although she didn’t offer a reason. She didn’t immediately respond to a Tuesday message seeking comment.
The commission and the state Department of Administration have been reaching out to colleges, labor unions and other groups to recruit poll workers. The commission also is trying to put together a pool of emergency poll workers who could deploy on Election Day as needed, according to a memo commission Administrator Meagan Wolfe sent to commissioners. She told the panel Tuesday that the DOA had sent an email to state workers asking them to serve as poll workers as well.
Meanwhile, the number of absentee ballot requests has continued to surge. As of Tuesday morning, voters had requested 972,232 ballots and returned 337,563, easily crushing the previous record for absentee voting.
Counting cannot begin until 7 a.m. on Election Day. Municipalities have been warning the commission that they’ll need extra time to count them and that the results might not be posted for days. Wolfe said in her memo to commissioners that her staff has advised clerks to do their best to finish on Election Day, but to be prepared to reconvene the next morning to finish.
Democrats and liberal-leaning groups have filed three federal lawsuits in Madison in an attempt to postpone the election, force a move to a mail-only voting and give clerks 10 extra days to count absentee ballots. It’s unclear when a ruling might come.
The elections commission is made up of three Democratic and three Republican appointees. The Democratic appointees warned during Tuesday’s meeting that voters who can find an open polling site will be exposed to the virus and an untold number of people will never get absentee ballots requested and returned to the clerks by the Election Day deadline.
“This election is going to go down as the worst election in Wisconsin history,” Commissioner Julie Glancey said.
Although Ohio postponed its primary hours before polls were supposed to open, Commission Chairman Dean Knudson, a Repubican appointee, said it’s too late to make any changes to Wisconsin’s election.