Voting stations at the Eagle Point town hall in Chippewa County
Voting stations at the Eagle Point town hall in Chippewa County (Photo by Pat Kreitlow)

Elections commission emergency meeting weighs coronavirus concerns with continuity of elections

The Wisconsin Elections Commission met in an emergency session Wednesday afternoon to address some of the challenges facing the state and its local clerks as they try to remain committed to holding the general election for non-partisan local offices on April 7. 

The meeting began shortly after the state and national Democratic parties asked a federal court to order an extension of deadlines for requesting and returning absentee ballots due to the higher number of mailed ballots expected due to the coronavirus outbreak.

A statewide Supreme Court race and the Democratic presidential primary are being held in conjunction with the spring election. Gov. Tony Evers has indicated a desire to maintain the April 7 date, saying there could be consequences to delaying an election that leaves key local offices unfilled. 

The commission engaged in a lengthy debate after three of its six members advocated for recommending that the state move the election date back or hold a mail-only election. 

Eventually the commission adopted a resolution affirming that it “is vitally important that our April 7 election goes on as scheduled to ensure continuity in local government.” But the members acknowledged there are still questions to be answered.

“Today we’re here balancing health concerns, that’s really what this meeting is all about,” said commission chair Dean Knudson. “How do we balance concerns over not unnecessarily putting anyone at risk with that all important right to have access to vote.”

Among the matters brought to light by the pandemic: is there a difference between a voter who is in quarantine as the result of a medical diagnosis and a voter who has self-isolated as a precaution rather than vote in person.

WEC Administrator Meagan Wolfe outlined for commission members the numerous concerns that could disrupt or change the voting process. 

Local elections officials say they are having a difficult time ensuring they can maintain a polling place that does not increase spread of the virus, Wolfe said. 

“The lack of available hand sanitizer and other sanitation products really has emerged as one of the key challenges and concerns of clerks around our state,” said Wolfe. “Many of our clerks and poll workers are within that vulnerable demographic.” 

Related concerns with hygiene were expressed about the signing of a poll book and the handing out of “I Voted” stickers.

The commission adopted a resolution committing itself to “developing, publicizing and instructing clerks in all municipalities on best public health practices for the April 7, 2020 election.”

Potential delays in mail delivery were also cited as a factor that could impact delivery and return of ballots. 

Despite a rising demand for absentee ballots, Wolfe said it appears the commission can properly supply local clerks with enough ballots and envelopes.

Some elderly poll workers may choose to not show up as a personal precaution, Wolfe said, and she urged greater outreach to college students and other community members to volunteer.

Wolfe said the commission does not have the authority to change deadlines on absentee ballots because they are spelled out specifically in state statute and can only be altered by a court or by the Legislature. 

The state and national Democratic parties are asking a court to extend the state’s vote-by-mail deadline for the upcoming spring elections and to drop voter ID requirements for requesting an absentee ballot. 

The current deadline is tonight (Wednesday) to request an absentee ballot online or to have it postmarked before midnight, but the parties argued the deadline should be extended to April 3 because more people are likely to stay home and not go to their local polling place on April 7 as the pandemic grows. 

The Democrats also want to extend the deadline for absentee ballots to be received. Rather than an 8 p.m. deadline on Election Day, they request absentee ballots be postmarked as late as April 7 and received by municipal clerks’ offices within 10 days of the election.