‘Tensions are high’ but election experts say voting is secure

By: - November 4, 2022 6:45 am

The polling place at the City of Brodhead fire station. (Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)

Ahead of Tuesday’s midterm elections, experts and officials see tensions rising in Wisconsin and across the country. 

Armed poll watchers have been guarding Arizona absentee drop-off sites. Wisconsin Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Michels, who won’t say if he’ll accept the results of the election, has promised that if he’s given control of the state’s election administration levers, the party will never lose another election. As an extension of the Republican party’s efforts to recruit an unprecedented number of partisan poll watchers, the Republican National Committee brought and won a lawsuit in Green Bay seeking to give those watchers more access to the city’s early voting process. 

In the two years since the 2020 election, Wisconsin’s election system has been poked and prodded, investigated, attacked and sued repeatedly. Now, even Republicans who never conceded President Joe Biden’s win in 2020  are casting their ballots in the midterms as voters choose the state’s governor, U.S. Senator and decide if Republicans should be given a veto-proof supermajority in the Legislature. 

Nearly 600,000 people have already cast absentee votes, according to data from the Wisconsin Elections Commission, but hundreds of thousands more will head to the polls on Tuesday. Election experts say that despite fears of interference or intimidation from right-wing extremists, voting will be safe and secure. 

“Tensions are high right now, but we’re not seeing anything that concerns us,” Mel Barnes, an attorney for progressive election law firm Law Forward, wrote in an email to the Examiner. “We also know that local media has a huge impact on how people view the election. Press narratives feeding into and amplifying the potential for conflict are not helpful to voters. Local media has a lot of power to escalate or deescalate what is going on. National right-wing forces are trying to amp up this conflict (see Green Bay lawsuit) because they know it benefits them when voters stay home.”

WEC data shows that as of Thursday, more than 223,000 people have already cast in-person absentee votes in Wisconsin. David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, said in a press briefing Thursday that staying home for fear of violence is exactly what extremists want. 

“There would be nothing that extremists and election deniers would like more than for voters to feel scared about whether they should vote, and they shouldn’t,” Becker said. “Voters are showing that you can vote in complete safety in this election.”

On the theory that former President Donald Trump’s legal efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election failed because of a failure to gather enough  hard proof that the election was stolen, the Republican party has attempted to recruit and train poll workers across the state. Encouraged to take notes and report them up the ladder — including to places like an “election integrity” website created by incumbent GOP Sen. Ron Johnson. 

Many of the complaints Republicans raised following the 2020 election about the voting process have been litigated away or no longer apply. The state’s election rules, for example, no longer allow the use of absentee ballot drop boxes or a local clerk to add missing witness address information on a ballot certification. Changes the WEC made to the rules for voting in nursing homes in 2020 no longer apply because COVID-19 restrictions are no longer in effect. 

“Following grievances that Trump’s supporters raised after the 2020 election, they believe they are not being given adequate opportunity to view the voting process and that invalid absentee ballots — say those missing some information — might be accepted for counting,” UW-Madison political science professor Barry Burden says. “This distrust is despite several court rulings that have eliminated the practices that Trump’s backers were most vocal about two years ago.”

Mindful of this possibility, local election officials have said they have contingency plans for how to deal with unruly poll watchers. Burden says that despite these plans, the poll watchers could still cause delays and disruptions. 

“Election observers are welcome at Wisconsin’s polling places and election offices,” he says. “Local clerks are usually eager to invite people with questions to watch the voting process up close. However, it is possible that aggressive election observers will cause disruptions at polling places by demanding additional access or challenging voters. That could lead to delays in the voting process and contribute to longer wait times.”

After the polls close Tuesday, it will be a while before results come in. In the two previous statewide elections, results coming in late from Milwaukee helped sway the final count. The city, which uses one central location to count all of its votes, won’t have the results at 8:01 p.m.

“The public was informed in advance of the 2018 and 2020 elections that the absentee ballot results from the city would be added late in the night, so it should not have been a surprise,” Burden says. “It was nonetheless treated with suspicion in 2018 and transformed into a conspiracy theory in 2020.”

As of Thursday, more than 57,000 absentee ballots had been requested in Milwaukee and nearly 47,000 had been returned. While less than in 2020 when absentee voting exploded in popularity because of the pandemic, it still takes a long time to process all those ballots — especially since they can’t even be opened until polls open on Election Day. Barnes says the state’s election officials need to be allowed to count the votes without being rushed or threatened. 

“What is most important is that we make sure trusted election officials across the state have the space to count every vote,” she says. “We know from experience in Wisconsin that this may take well into the night, or even days, and that’s what it takes to make sure all our voices are heard. Voters decide elections.”

Even after the votes are counted and results reported, 2020 showed that isn’t necessarily the end. Johnson, like Michels, has equivocated about whether or not he’ll accept the results of an election loss. Becker says he’s worried that will happen across the country. 

“I am however a little bit concerned about what’s going to happen after Election Day and we’re already seeing extremist election deniers, perhaps candidates who think they’re likely to lose, question the counting of the ballots, questioning how long it might take to count the ballots,” Becker says. 

Polls open on Tuesday at 7 a.m. and remain open until 8 p.m.

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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.

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