Voters and election officials push forward in the face of politics, lawsuits and infections

Stacks of boxes holding mail are seen at a U.S. Post Office sorting center. Photo by Justin Sullivan | Getty Images
Stacks of boxes holding mail are seen at a U.S. Post Office sorting center. Photo by Justin Sullivan | Getty Images

Since April the COVID-19 pandemic and Wisconsin’s 2020 election cycle have been on a collision course. Now, with just over two weeks remaining until Election Day, the crash is happening. 

According to the Wisconsin Elections Commission, 77,448 people have registered to vote since Oct. 1. In that same time period, 37,164 more Wisconsinites tested positive for COVID-19, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services

If the presidential election and the pandemic were always going to converge like this, then the state’s politics — most notably lawsuits and obstruction from the Wisconsin Republican Party — were a cinderblock on the gas pedal. 

Months ago, Democrats and outside groups filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court to loosen some election laws in order to ease the obstacles to voting during a pandemic for Wisconsinites. Federal Judge William Conley agreed, extending some deadlines and temporarily removing some rules. 

The state’s Republican party and its Republican-led Legislature appealed Conley’s decision and the case has now been sent to the U.S. Supreme Court

In an amicus brief filed this week with the court, Gov. Tony Evers placed rising infections, lack of a plan and voter suppression at the feet of Republicans. 

“To be clear, the Wisconsin Legislature has done nothing to address the state’s worsening public health crisis and its potential impact on the voting rights of Wisconsin’s citizens,” the brief states. “The Wisconsin Legislature has neither convened any study committees nor held any hearings on the safety of in-person voting during the pandemic, the effective staffing of polls during a pandemic, or whether statutes should be modified to protect the constitutional rights of Wisconsin citizens. In fact, the Legislature has not enacted legislation of any kind since April 14, 2020 — a six month period of inaction.”

It’s not as if solutions haven’t been proposed to improve access to absentee ballots, safety at the polls and an efficient, accurate accounting of the vote. 

There are a number of proposed options in Conley’s initial ruling. But there’s also already-proposed legislation with bipartisan support that would allow absentee ballots to be counted before the polls open on Election Day — something currently prohibited by state law. 

In a letter from State Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) and 22 other Wisconsin legislators to Republican leaders, they argue that this measure is “eminently necessary.” 

“Our local clerks need extra time to process these ballots if we are to have any hope of reporting results within 24 hours of poll closing at 8pm on Tuesday, November 3rd,” the letter states. “Election integrity is of utmost concern for voters in Wisconsin, and the longer the count takes, the more potential for mistrust in results to be fomented by those who mean harm to our democracy.”

In response to a question from Urban Milwaukee, a spokesperson for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Burlington) signaled his willingness to support such a measure — yet there’s almost zero chance the Legislature will convene ahead of the election to pass anything. 

The state Republican Party is fighting this war on multiple fronts. 

As the Legislature has gone six months without passing a bill and fights in federal courts to prevent measures that would make it easier to vote in a pandemic, conservative groups and the Wisconsin GOP are fighting in state courts to make it harder for state officials to fight the pandemic

“In sum, the Governor and his executive team have battled the virus using the latest science-based research and recommendations from the world’s leading public health experts,” Evers’ amicus brief states. “Meanwhile, the Legislature has sat on its hands, ignored the dangers of in person voting during growing COVID-19 infections — except to hire counsel to intervene in litigation, including here in the district court and the Seventh Circuit, where it contends that the State is somehow injured if the minimal adjustments related to absentee ballots and poll workers are implemented, as ordered by the district court.”

During the Legislature’s forays into various judicial systems, it has racked up — at taxpayer expense — a bill of nearly $2 million, according to a report from the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. 

“The state Legislature is spending an enormous amount of money on outside lawyers,” Lester Pines, an attorney representing Evers’ in his amicus brief, says. 

But despite all of this, the state’s elections officials are pushing forward and say election preparations are going well as voters use early and absentee voting opportunities in record numbers. 

The state’s April election was marred by a shortage of poll workers across the state that caused the closure of polling locations creating long lines in big cities such as Milwaukee and Green Bay. While local clerks say they haven’t fully reached the ideal number of poll workers, the problem is much less severe than in April. 

With 18 days remaining, 51 local clerks in 33 counties report that they’re short a combined 180 poll workers, according to the WEC. The municipalities with the most remaining need are Green Bay, Menomonie and Antigo. 

While Green Bay is short 30 poll workers, WEC Administrator Meagan Wolfe said in a press briefing that in some small towns a shortage of just one or two workers can mean the difference between opening a location or not. 

“It certainly shows we’ve come a long way this year in terms of our need for poll workers,” Wolfe said. “Some of our larger jurisdictions have even completed recruitment on all of their backup poll workers as well. That’s pretty incredible and I’m grateful for Wisconsinites stepping up to serve their communities.” 

“But I think we still need to remain vigilant,” she continued. “180, those are some places that could be difficult to fill. Some townships, depending on if it’s a rural township, if there aren’t other populous areas near that community, those needs can be difficult to fill. Even if it’s just 180, that represents 51 communities and in some communities with really small polling places, they may only have a pool of five or seven people working at the polls on election day. So a shortage of two is a significant need for that community.” 

At a press briefing held later on Thursday, Evers said members of the Wisconsin National Guard would be available to serve as poll workers as they did in the state’s previous elections in 2020. To serve as a poll worker, those eligible can check with their municipal clerk. 

All of the fuss over preparations is made to ensure that the state’s voters can access the ballot and so far, they’re doing so in droves. Nearly 1.4 million voters have already requested absentee ballots and more than 785,000 have already been returned to local clerks. 

Dane County’s returned ballots already equal more than 40% of its 2016 turnout. The numbers are this high before in-person absentee voting has even opened. 

Pines says numbers this high across the state show that Republican efforts this year to suppress the vote have largely failed. 

“The suppression efforts of the Republicans I think are falling short in Wisconsin,” he says. “There’s a tremendous turnout. One-third of voters in Dane County have already voted, that’s extraordinary. It’s going to be even more by the time we get to Election Day. Between early voting and people sending in absentee ballots, it’s entirely possible the polls won’t be that crowded. It may be that this election will come off in Wisconsin very calmly and people won’t have to stand in long lines.”

On Election Day, even without long lines, polling places will be a flurry of activity because of the need to count the record number of absentees. 

Wolfe said the WEC is working with clerks to help them establish procedures. Pines says Wisconsin’s system, with control decentralized to 1,850 municipal clerks, might be a benefit this year because there’s not one location needing to count a whole county’s ballots. 

“It is a decentralized structure so I expect that the election will go relatively smoothly and that the ballots will be counted pretty quickly,” Pines says. “Absentee ballots go to the precincts, unlike in some states where absentee ballots go to a central location. Because they go to the precincts they get spread around over a lot of poll workers who use time during the day who check them against the poll books and run them through the tabulator. They don’t wait until the end of the day to start counting absentee ballots. I think we’re going to get a good read on who won the election by midnight on Nov. 3.”

Elections officials in Dane and Waukesha counties agreed, estimating this week that their counts would be done by the end of election night, though a Milwaukee County official expected the most populous county’s results to be outstanding until past 3 a.m. 

In-person absentee voting in Wisconsin begins Oct. 20. The last day to request an absentee ballot is Oct. 29.