Elections clerks around Wisconsin typically have plans for what to do if an election is impacted by a fire, a power outage or other crises. But now, election officials around the state find themselves preparing for an election impacted by a global pandemic.
Wisconsin’s spring election is set to take place on April 7 — in just 22 days.
As the illness known as COVID-19 continues to spread around the globe — with 47 cases in ten Wisconsin counties as of Monday afternoon — it’s difficult to predict what will happen next week, let alone next month, so officials are preparing for a number of possibilities.
The Town of Oakland in Jefferson County ordered 1,800 pens so people won’t need to share them. The Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC) shared best practices for cleaning voting machines. The Wisconsin Democratic Party is exploring the best ways to organize and campaign digitally.
The illness isn’t just changing the structures and practices behind the voting process, it’s going to change how voting itself is done.
“We’re encouraging as many people as possible to vote by absentee,” WEC spokesman Reid Magney says.
With the state urging people to stay in their homes and absentee ballot requests surging, the work of counting ballots will change, according to Magney.
“Shifting a lot of those ballots to absentee will certainly help out at polling places, but it also creates other sorts of work,” Magney says. “It shifts to mailing out ballots. It shifts initially, then it shifts to getting those ballots back, depending upon how a municipality processes their ballots, they’re either sending them to a central location or sending them to polling places to be processed.”
Chris Astrella, Oakland’s town clerk, says he’s never seen anything like this in the 50 elections he’s administered. The town’s ballots were set to be delivered this week, but Astrella said he’s already seeing more absentee requests than normal.
“As far as voting in general, we are pushing people to vote through the mail and request absentee ballots,” Astrella said. “I want to see everybody that can vote, vote, but I certainly can’t fault anyone if they don’t want to come to the polls.”
In Madison, City Clerk Maribeth Witzel-Behl said the city is processing a couple thousand absentee ballot requests a day but the actual election is so far out that final plans have yet to be set due to the moving target COVID-19 presents.
She added poll workers will be taking extra precautions such as sanitizing pens between uses.
“We’re not telling voters to do one thing or another,” Witzel-Behl said. “We want to make sure they know what their options are. Election day we still have a lot of things that are unknown. That’s changing daily. Right now what we’re focusing on is getting absentee ballots out.”
Get out the vote
The uncertainty caused by the illness has had an impact on campaigning and organizing efforts in the state, according to state Democratic Party Chair Ben Wikler. Party workers are figuring out the best ways to encourage turnout, he says.
How does canvassing look when knocking on doors isn’t available? What’s the best way to campaign in the time of social distancing?
Wikler says campaign workers and volunteers across the state will be encouraging people to request absentee ballots or vote early to avoid large crowds. But, the virus puts a big question mark over what will happen April 7 and it’s difficult to know just how coronavirus will impact turnout.
“It’s very difficult to predict what the environment will be 22 days from now,” Wikler says. “Anyone working on an election, running for office [or]planning to vote, should have contingencies and plan for people to stay safe.”
The Wisconsin Republican Party did not return a request for comment.
The deadline to register to vote online or by mail is March 18. The deadline for registered voters to request an absentee ballot is April 2. Requesters will need to provide a copy of their photo ID to receive a ballot and the election clerk must receive the ballot by 8 p.m. on election day.