‘This election is going to go down as one of the worst elections in Wisconsin history’

Elections commissioners continue to squabble with just one week until election day

A sign guides voters on Election Day at 514 Studios on November 6, 2018 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)
MINNEAPOLIS, MN - NOVEMBER 06: A sign guides voters on Election Day at 514 Studios on November 6, 2018 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

On March 18, 20 days before election day, the Wisconsin Elections Commission held a meeting in which it discussed a shortage of poll workers, sanitizing products, absentee ballot materials and closing poll locations. 

On March 31, seven days before election day, the Wisconsin Elections Commission held a meeting in which it discussed a shortage of poll workers, sanitizing products, absentee ballot materials and closing poll locations. 

Despite what the commissioners called the “valiant” efforts of WEC staff who secured more than one million absentee envelopes, 1.5 million extra pens, 750,000 isopropyl wipes and 5,830 liters of sanitizing solution, the problems with holding an in-person election during a pandemic that were discussed on March 18 largely remained problems as the commission met one week out from the election on Tuesday. 

Even though staff has succeeded in distributing a huge amount of materials in a relatively short amount of time, the biggest concern remains a drastic lack of poll workers around the state. 

According to a survey conducted by the WEC, out of 1,850 jurisdictions statewide, 111 said they don’t have enough poll workers to have even one polling location and 126 said they didn’t have the staff for all their polling places

Now, there’s more litigation, hundreds of thousands more absentee ballot requests and less time to find solutions.

A sign urging people to vote by mail in Maple Bluff, a few blocks from the governors mansion (photo by Ruth Conniff).
A sign urging people to vote by mail in Maple Bluff, a few blocks from the governors mansion (photo by Ruth Conniff).

“We had our meeting on March 18 and we voted 3-3 against the motion to ask state leadership to have a special session to address the dire circumstances we’re in and the failure of current election law to address those issues,” Commissioner Mark Thomsen said. “We pointed out we’re going to have huge problems with absentee ballot requests, counting absentee ballots, a shortage of poll workers. Everything we talked about, those trends continue.”

While Thomsen’s view of the current state of affairs was shared by some other commissioners — primarily Ann Jacobs — others said they were confident in the state’s ability to work out the problems within the next week. 

“I think we’re on track with policies, I’m hoping clerks are going to pay attention to best practices and guidelines,” Commissioner Robert Spindell said. “I’m very happy in terms of what’s going on here and I think we can have a good election on April 7.”

The Wisconsin Election Commission’s map highlighting the extent of the statewide poll worker shortage.

With the six commissioners unable to agree on even the baseline depth of the problem, none of the three motions proposed passed.

The first motion, brought by Thomsen, was to let the federal judge handling the lawsuits against the commission know that if the election were to be delayed, it should be delayed to May 12 when a special election for the seventh congressional district is already set to be held. 

That motion failed 2-4 with all Republican appointed representatives voting against it and joined by Commissioner Julie Glancey. 

“I believe it would be better to hold it on April 7,” Commission Chair Dean Knudson said. “In order to maintain continuity of local government.”

Knudson then brought a motion proposing the opposite of Thomsen’s — that the commission tell the court the election date should not be moved. 

This motion also failed, on a 3-3 vote. 

The MyVote Wisconsin website tracks the progress of absentee ballots.

“What are we going to tell people if we don’t have poll workers for them?” Jacobs said. “My concern is we are pretending — with fingers crossed and unicorn wishes — that we will be able to cobble together a way to administer this election. Maybe three weeks ago we could say ‘oh it’ll be fine.’ Two weeks ago we wrote to the governor and Legislature to urge them to do something about it. We’re going to have to answer to people if somebody, god forbid, comes down with the coronavirus after working as a poll worker.”

She added: “To tell the judge that we absolutely have to go forward is unnecessary and unfortunate.” 

But Glancey disagreed with Jacobs on one point, if a poll worker gets sick, it won’t be the commission that’s at fault — because the commission doesn’t have the power to change election law.

“It’s not our problem, it’s the Legislature’s problem,” Glancey said “They are the ones that created this problem. This election is going to go down as one of the worst elections in Wisconsin history.”

The last motion proposed, which was introduced by Commissioner Marge Bostelmann and amended by Spindell, was brought forth as a middle ground between Thomsen’s and Knudson’s motions. 

The motion would have had the WEC inform the federal judge that the election should go forward as scheduled on April 7, but the deadline for accepting absentee ballots should be pushed back to allow people more time to receive, fill out and return their ballots and give local elections clerks more time to process the huge amount of ballots.

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.)

“We need to have this election on the 7th because it’s too late to stop it,” Bostelmann said. “We also request the judge consider the unprecedented number of absentee ballots coming in and review procedures to make sure they’re all counted.”

But even the proposed middle ground solution failed, on a 2-4 vote — with Bostelmann and Spindell the only yes votes. 

Ultimately, no actions came from the WEC’s Tuesday meeting before the commission moved into closed session to discuss its strategy in the pending lawsuits. 

As of Tuesday morning, more than 972,000 requests for absentee ballots had been processed around the state — a record breaking amount for any state election. The deadline for requesting a ballot, for most voters, is April 2 and ballots must be returned in time that local clerks receive them — either by mail or in person — by 8 p.m. on election day, April 7.