Wisconsin’s closed polls

By: - April 6, 2020 11:00 pm
Voters casting ballots. | Mario Tama/Getty Images

Voters casting ballots. (Mario Tama | Getty Images)

Wisconsin’s April 7 election has been subject to confusion, whiplash and litigation amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

With the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s order Monday evening that Gov. Tony Evers does not have the authority to postpone the election by executive order, the state will hold in-person voting Tuesday.

But in-person voting has already been greatly affected by coronavirus. A shortage of available poll workers forced jurisdictions around the state to consolidate polls.

In a survey conducted by the Wisconsin Elections Commission, 111 municipalities said they had a “critical” shortage of poll workers — meaning they couldn’t open one polling location — and 126 other municipalities said they had a “serious” shortage of poll workers, forcing consolidation.

WEC Administrator Meagan Wolfe said at a press conference Monday it’s impossible to know how coronavirus will affect turnout. More than 1.2 million voters have requested absentee ballots as of Monday, according to WEC data. About 720,000 absentee ballots had been returned, as of Monday morning.

The last two spring elections that had presidential primaries, 2012 and 2016, had turnouts of 1,144,351 and 2,113,544, respectively.

“There’s no way of knowing what voter behavior will be and how many people will choose to participate in tomorrow’s election,” Wolfe said. 

However it’s possible the decreased number of polling locations will cause more people to be packed into the few locations that are open — going against public health guidelines of social distancing and avoiding crowds.

The Wisconsin National Guard has been mobilized to fill the gaps in poll workers. Wolfe said at the press conference around 2,500 service members had been deployed to their home communities and would be working at the polls in plain clothes.

The National Guard did conduct intake with nearly 2,500 service members … serving as poll workers in plain clothes in counties and communities where they live and reside,” Wolfe said. “They reported to their counties today to receive additional training, in municipalities where we know there’s a need.”

But even with the National Guard filling in, the pandemic has severely limited the ability to vote in person around the state.

The maps below show the impact poll consolidation has had on Wisconsin’s five largest cities — Milwaukee, Madison, Green Bay, Kenosha and Racine. These five cities have a combined population of more than 1.1 million people.

The five counties these cities are in account for 508,331 of the state’s absentee ballot requests — almost half the total.

On the maps, in gray, are pins noting poll locations open for Wisconsin’s 2019 April election. In red, the poll locations open tomorrow.

To see more detail, click the sidebar button at the top left of each map –

Milwaukee — Wisconsin’s largest city, has gone from 180 voting locations to five. It is also the location of the state’s largest coronavirus outbreak, with more than 1,000 confirmed cases as of Monday evening.

Madison has had to relocate poll locations across the city. City and Dane County officials have repeatedly warned against in-person voting.

Green Bay, which normally has more than 30 polling places, is down to just two. Mayor Eric Genrich has been vocal in his opposition to holding an in-person election.

Kenosha is down to just ten poll locations, about half its normal number.

Racine, which will still open most of its polling places, has moved to curbside voting as if it were a drive-thru. Laying out detailed instructions on the city’s website for how people will drive through parking lots to cast their vote.


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Henry Redman
Henry Redman

Henry Redman is a staff reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner who focuses on covering Wisconsin's towns and rural areas. He previously covered crime and courts at the Daily Jefferson County Union. A lifelong Midwesterner, he was born in Cleveland, Ohio and graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a degree in journalism in May 2019.