Wisconsin looks to avoid repeat of chaotic April elections

Wisconsin election officials are working ahead of the state’s Tuesday primaries to avoid a repeat of its chaotic April 7 elections, which became a symbol of the challenges the coronavirus pandemic poses to voting in 2020.

Officials have already taken several steps to head off public health concerns surrounding the primaries. Members of the state’s Elections Commission issued clarifying guidelines late last month requiring poll workers and election observers to wear face coverings. And voters will be asked to wash their hands both before and after they cast their ballots.

In Milwaukee, the largest city in Wisconsin, 168 polling stations with added safety equipment will be open. That’s a marked increase from April when the city opened only five precincts, leading to hours-long lines and crowding that flew in the face of social distancing guidelines. The same is true for Green Bay, the state’s third largest city, where 17 polling sites will be open, up from only two in April.

And election officials say that municipal clerks and poll workers have, in most cases, been supplied with enough sanitizer and personal protective equipment to get them through November.

But some concerns remain. Unlike poll workers, voters will not be required to wear masks on Tuesday. And the Elections Commission put out a call for poll workers last week, acknowledging that municipal clerks statewide were still at least 900 people short, stirring fears among some that in-person voting could once again prompt long lines.

“I don’t know what Tuesday is going to be like,” said Jay Heck, the executive director of watchdog group Common Cause in Wisconsin. “I hope it’s not going to be the nightmare that it was on April 7, but there will be people waiting in line and there will be some degree of discomfort, if not outright fear.”

Coronavirus cases have soared in Wisconsin in recent months, with the state’s total number of confirmed cases rising past 60,000 over the weekend. On Saturday, officials reported 1,165 new cases of the virus, setting a single-day record for the state.

Gov. Tony Evers (D) signed an emergency order late last month requiring Wisconsin residents to wear face coverings while indoors. But that mandate sparked backlash from conservatives, with the Republican-controlled state Senate threatening to kill the mask requirement.

Election officials in Wisconsin say that the state is on track for a smoother voting process than in April, when Wisconsin held both its presidential primaries and a general election for a hotly contested state Supreme Court seat. Those elections were marred by closed polling stations, long lines to vote in person and an intense legal battle over Evers’s effort to postpone voting until June.

Unlike in April, however, the Aug. 11 partisan primaries are expected to draw far fewer voters, said Reid Magney, a spokesperson for the Wisconsin Elections Commission.

Magney said that the Elections Commission’s call for poll workers last week has largely been answered, including by the National Guard, which is expected to employ some 661 members to polling sites across the state on Tuesday. According to Magney, “that pretty much fills any gaps that there were.”

One challenge facing election officials on Tuesday will be processing a wave of absentee ballots. The Elections Commission announced on Monday that voters have requested more than 900,000 absentee ballots for the Tuesday primaries — more than seven times as many as the number requested for the state’s August 2018 primary elections.

Magney said that the expected lower turnout should allow election officials the time needed to process the flood of absentee ballots.

“Tomorrow morning at 7 a.m. at 2,000 or more polling places around the state, poll workers are going to start opening up absentee envelopes and processing those ballots,” Magney said. “And because we anticipate a fairly low in-person turnout, it’s not like those poll workers are going to be swamped checking in voters, so they should have time to process the absentee ballots.”

The primaries on Tuesday are widely seen as a crucial test ahead of the Nov. 3 general election, when voter turnout is expected to be much higher.

“It’s not exactly a dry run and it’s not exactly practice because it’s a real election, but this will give us a lot of good data about what other things we need to be thinking about for November,” Magney said.

Heck, the executive director of Common Cause in Wisconsin, said that “even if everything goes smoothly” on Tuesday, there’s no guarantee that the state’s election systems are in good shape ahead of November, noting that officials will have to drastically scale up their efforts in the coming months.

“What happens tomorrow is going to be a real indicator of how people perceive Nov. 3,” Heck said. “And if tomorrow looks horrible and tomorrow poses a lot of problems then that’s a real alarm for what we can expect in November.”

Tags 2020 elections absentee Coronavirus COVID-19 mail-in voting primary Tony Evers Wisconsin

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