Appleton, Green Bay, Neenah mayors express concern over election safety

Requesting legislative action to change election law, possibly move to entirely vote-by-mail election

Voting Cancelled sign via Flickr
Voting Cancelled sign via Flickr

Amid mounting legal and public pressure from interest groups, political parties and government officials to delay Wisconsin’s April 7 election in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, three mayors advocated for an entirely vote-by-mail spring election.

headshot Neenah Mayor Dean Kaufert
Neenah Mayor Dean Kaufert

Dean Kaufert of Neenah, Timothy Hanna of Appleton and Eric Genrich of Green Bay held a remote press conference Friday morning to express concerns for the safety of the public and their employees if an in-person election is held April 7. 

The fate of Wisconsin’s spring election is up in the air as the Democratic National Committee and Democratic Party of Wisconsin filed a suit this week in federal court to extend deadlines and suspend voter ID requirements due to the spread of the virus. 

Additionally, a group of 10 major advocacy groups wrote a letter to Gov. Tony Evers, legislative leaders and Wisconsin Elections Commission Chair Dean Knudson about steps the government could take to ensure the election is fair and accessible. 

But, at a meeting Wednesday, Republican members of the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC) expressed a reluctance to make any major changes to how the election will take place in less than 20 days. 

At the news conference Friday, all three mayors asked the state government to step up and take charge of a messy and difficult crisis. Genrich, a former Democratic state representative, added that this mayoral coalition — which includes Kaufert, a former Republican state representative — shows fighting coronavirus is a bipartisan effort.

Green Bay Mayor Eric Genrich
Green Bay Mayor Eric Genrich

“As mayors, we’re tasked with solving problems in big and small ways every day,” Genrich said. “This problem, holding an election in the midst of a pandemic, is a problem we can’t solve on our own. It’s a logistical trainwreck and a public health tragedy.”

To avoid the trainwreck, the mayors urged state leaders to consider alternative options for voting. They suggested moving to an entirely vote-by-mail election so people won’t need to go into public polling places. 

Appleton Mayor Tim Hanna
Appleton Mayor Tim Hanna

“We can put this election in the mailbox,” Genrich said. “We’re not asking for a permanent policy change, this is a one-time request.”

A major concern, the mayors said, is if anyone in the municipal offices tests positive, they’ll need to shut down — a possibility that already happened at the Brown County Courthouse this week. 

This could mean a major blow to the election because clerks and staff have been working around the clock to process the flood of absentee ballot requests they’ve received in the last few days. According to the WEC, more than 380,000 absentee ballots have been requested around the state, a record for spring elections. 

“If one person in your clerk’s office tests positive, you have to shut down,” Hanna said. “Limiting exposure to people that work in the clerk’s office is paramount to ensuring the election can go on and we can bring the election to a conclusion.” 

The outcome all mayors said they want to avoid is disenfranchisement and depressed turnout. People shouldn’t have to make such a difficult choice, according to Kaufert. 

“This could lead to voter suppression,” Kaufert said. “Especially the elderly, they’re going to have to choose if they want to stay in their homes or vote.”