By Shereen Siewert

Wausau officials this month created a task force to ensure safe elections, should a second wave of COVID-19 impact residents in future elections.

The move comes as communities around the state and country are considering how to deal with any potential disruptions of future elections.

In March, the National Task Force on Election Crises released the first of several planned guides for how to respond to potential disruptions of the 2020 general election. The COVID-19 Election Guide addresses how state and local officials can protect eligible voters’ ability to cast ballots without undue risk to their own health or to the broader community.

During a May 13 meeting of the city council, Wausau City Clerk Leslie Kremer said there are legal and procedural reasons that determine how the city administers elections.

“We can’t just make rules,” Kremer said, adding that the Wisconsin Elections Commission ultimately decides how elections are performed.

Kremer, who is expected to serve on the task force, said she is looking to make elections more efficient, while establishing a succession plan for aging poll workers.

One possibility might be to consolidate polling locations, Kremer said, a change that would require WEC approval if the task force opted to explore that option.

Mayor Katie Rosenberg said her goal in creating the task force is to plan for the things the city can control for the August and November elections.

“Several communities are doing things like sending out absentee ballot applications, looking at their in-person absentee plans, and some are even looking at vote center type models,” Rosenberg said. “There are, necessarily so, regulations from the state and protocols from the county that each municipality must follow so I wanted to make sure we were talking about all of the available options well ahead of the elections so it doesn’t feel rushed or like we’re surprising people.”

Officials in Weston, for example, discussed a proposal that sought to allow voter registration by mail to accommodate populations without internet access and those who do not trust providing personal documents online. But village officials, citing cost and the potential for voter fraud, rejected the measure on Monday.

Wausau’s task force would “provide leadership to protect the health, safety and general welfare of the city’s voting residents and those working the elections,” according to city documents.

Rosenberg said she knows of no instances of COVID-19 traced to any Wausau polling sites, though the city did field complaints about poll workers not wearing masks or touching IDs.

“I want to fully consider whether or not we should require masks or what kind of training should happen ahead of the elections,” Rosenberg said.

Kremer and the other four members chosen for the task force would work cooperatively with Marathon County. At least two council members, one local public health official and a citizen representative will be chosen for the task force, which will be chaired by a Public Health and Safety Committee member.

“In a critical election year, steps can and must be taken to ensure that the democratic process proceeds on schedule through the November election, while protecting the health of both voters and poll workers,“ said Trevor Potter, President of the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center and a former Republican Chairman of the Federal Election Commission. “Our election processes and infrastructure will continue to be tested by the coronavirus. Policymakers and election officials must ensure that every eligible American has access to the ballot box because the essence of democracy is that every eligible voter must have the opportunity to participate.”

“Elections have endured in other times of crisis, and they will in 2020,” Potter said.