Elections Commission searching for answers on safety of April election

WEC staffers Michelle Hawley and Sara Linski train poll workers in Brookfield, Wis. in 2018
WEC staffers Michelle Hawley and Sara Linski train poll workers in Brookfield, Wis. in 2018 (Photo: Wisconsin Elections Commission)

This story has been updated to reflect the accurate deadline to request an absentee ballot online. The deadline is April 2. 

For nearly three hours Wednesday, as the clock ticked and the COVID-19 pandemic continued to worsen, the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC) debated what it should do to ensure a safe and fair election can be held on April 7. 

At a special teleconference meeting — representing the surreal new normal created by the coronavirus as hundreds of members of the public listened in — commissioners often couldn’t even agree on what their role should be in this crisis.

Republican Commissioners, including Chair Dean Knudson, argued the commission’s job should be to do whatever it can to make sure the election happens on April 7. He repeatedly pointed out Wisconsin’s election isn’t just a presidential primary and if the vote doesn’t happen, there will be vacancies up and down Wisconsin’s local government bodies and the state Supreme Court.

“In the current coronavirus crisis, it’s still extremely important and vital to the functioning of our society, we need to have our elections on April 7,” Knudson said. “Unlike states in which they’re holding only a presidential preference primary, our elections are much more important than that.”

But Democratic commissioners, especially Mark Thomsen and Ann Jacobs, said they didn’t think it was responsible to send people to public polling places when the pandemic would likely be worse by election day. While they acknowledged the commission itself doesn’t have the authority to change election laws, Jacobs made a motion — which ultimately failed on a 3-3 party line vote — requesting that Gov. Tony Evers call a special session of the Legislature to potentially delay the election or loosen some deadlines. 

“I don’t believe we are able to fairly or properly hold this election,” Jacobs said. “We will be far worse off than we are now. The idea we’re going to have a magic unicorn situation, especially if we have shelter-in-place orders, I’m profoundly concerned we’re going on a wing and a prayer here.”

Jacobs pushed for action: “I do think we need to potentially delay or otherwise mitigate the situation we are in. It is not my position it should go forward, I also recognize we don’t have the authority to prevent it going forward.”

If a change to election law were to happen, it would need to come from the Legislature or a court order. A suit was filed jointly March 18 by the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Party of Wisconsin in federal court to extend deadlines and suspend voter ID requirements due to the spread of the virus. 

The WEC will follow any order it’s given, but won’t be spending its time thinking through hypotheticals, according to commission spokesman Reid Magney. 

“If it’s this particular court case filed in federal court or if the Legislature does something, or if the Governor does something — they will tell us,” Magney says. “At this point, we have more important things to deal with than who has the authority to tell us.” 

Measures less dramatic than delaying the election, but still requiring legislative or executive action, were also discussed but ultimately turned down. Spearheading that effort was Knudson who kept insisting the commissioners work within the constraints of the commission’s authority.

Wisconsin Elections Commission Chair Dean Knudson on a special March 18, 2020 teleconference on the topic of the election during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Wisconsin Elections Commission Chair Dean Knudson on a special March 18, 2020 teleconference on the topic of the election during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo courtesy of Wisconsin Eye.)

“The election must go on,” he said. “We have a set of rules, we have statutes, we can make some modifications in procedures, but the basic set of state statutes that governs how we hold our spring elections are set.”

Despite the lack of headway, the commission discussed asking the Legislature to take a number of steps to change the election, including extending online registration deadlines or even moving to an entirely vote-by-mail system. 

Over the past week, officials were encouraging people to request absentee ballots online. The deadline for online absentee requests is April 2. As of Thursday morning, March 19, more than 315,000 absentee requests had been received around the state, which is a record for a spring election. 

In the meeting, WEC Administrator Meagan Wolfe laid out a number of obstacles the commission and its staff will need to help local election officials overcome in order to hold a successful election. But she also cautioned against delaying the election because of the complexity of Wisconsin election law. 

“Our statutes are incredibly complex,” Wolfe said. “It’s like dominoes, if you pass one, it changes everything else.”

She added that her staff is trying to focus on the issues immediately in front of them, not even thinking about what election day will look like yet. 

“It’s a mistake at this point to jump too far ahead as far as election day procedures for municipalities,” Wolfe said. “We want to give guidance and information to clerks about what they’re facing right now.”

If the elections move ahead as scheduled, local officials will need help securing enough hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies for polling places — in the middle of a nationwide shortage. 

Replacements will also need to be found for the normal stock of volunteer poll workers, who are typically older than 60 and therefore especially vulnerable to COVID-19. Wolfe suggested asking high school and college students, teachers and other government workers to step in to volunteer. 

“Our elections and democracy really do rely on the work of elderly people,” Wolfe said. “Be a part of the solution and also protect our most vulnerable citizens.” 

But for Jacobs, this idea was another sign that it would be irresponsible to hold the election. She asked why parents would allow their teenage children to go out into a public place and why teachers should be asked to do more than they already have in this crisis. Exposing these people, even if they’re “young and healthy,” to potentially hundreds of strangers, Jacobs said, is a risk not worth taking. 

Officials also have to contend with a shrinking number of adequate polling places. 

Even though voting locations are exempted from Evers’ order preventing mass gatherings, nursing homes and senior centers are off the table, many private locations have said they won’t take the risk and even some school districts have said they won’t open up schools to allow voting. 

Wolfe said clerks may need to get creative with new polling places, considering fairgrounds, police stations or public parks.

Ultimately, the commissioners unanimously approved one motion, but left a number of matters yet to be decided and kicked some decisions down the road for a later meeting.

The approved motion directed WEC staff to develop best practices to minimize potential transmission of the virus; urged the governor and Department of Health Services to secure a supply of hand sanitizer for election clerks and authorized Wolfe to spend up to $200,000 on additional supplies.

The motion also asked clerks to recruit and train new poll workers; encouraged people to request absentee ballots and asked clerks to continue accommodating in person absentee voting and registration. 

But even as the commission approved this motion, hanging over the meeting was a sense the virus had torn up any sense of normalcy in the democratic process, attacking the safety of even the act of putting on an “I voted” sticker as commissioners discussed minimizing personal contact at the polls.