Gov. Evers and other elected officials are encouraging voters to vote absentee for the April 7 election. (Photo by Jessica VanEgeren)
Gov. Evers and other elected officials are encouraging voters to vote absentee for the April 7 election. (Photo by Jessica VanEgeren)

COVID-19 concerns limiting the desire to vote in person or volunteer on April 7

Mary Detert is an active participant in the voting process. She votes, she makes calls for candidates and she is a regular volunteer at her polling site at Falk Elementary School in Madison. 

April 7 will be the first election in 14 years that she is not working at the polls. The retired school teacher is 70. Roughly 10 years ago she battled cancer, putting her at high-risk for contracting the coronavirus. 

“Working on election day is something I think is really important,” she said. “I feel bad about not being able to do it this year.”

Instead, she is calling registered voters on behalf of a candidate. Unlike years past, at the end of each call she tells the voter to go to myvote.wi.gov to request an absentee ballot. She and her husband planned on filling theirs out Wednesday. 

Detert isn’t the only person grappling with how to approach the April 7 election. 

In a scenario that pits holding a public election during the outbreak of a pandemic, everyone from volunteer polls workers, to city clerks and elected officials all the way up the governor are navigating uncharted election-related decisions.

On Tuesday, the city of Green Bay filed a lawsuit in federal court asking for the April 7 election to be delayed. Instead, the deadline sought by the city for voters to register for the election would be extended to May 1. Clerks across the state would then have until June 2 to count the mailed in ballots, essentially extending the election date by two months.

Also Tuesday, Gov. Tony Evers announced a “safer at home” order would take effect Wednesday, causing some to question why it was safe to leave their house to vote if they were unable to leave for other reasons.

Consequently, some locations are struggling with a shortage of Election Day workers. Other cities are buried in a record amount of absentee ballots as voters opt to mail in their votes rather than leave their homes to vote in person. 

In all, more than 500,000 absentee ballots have been requested by voters and more than 100,000 have already been returned to city clerks. 

The number of absentee ballots cast in the city of Madison is on pace to surpass the total number of city residents who voted in the February election and could eclipse the record number of absentee ballots ever cast for an election, which was the 2016 presidential election, said Madison City Clerk, Mary Beth Witzel.

So far, the city of Madison has issued 49,800 absentee ballots for the April 7 election, including 2,497 absentee ballots cast in person. For comparison, a total of 47,600 votes were cast in the February primary, Witzel said. 

Her office is trying to process a backlog of roughly 12,700 absentee ballot requests. Voters must request the ballot by April 2 and have them returned to the clerk’s office by April 7. 

She said staff is working 12 to 17 hours a day, with additional help from employees from other city departments.

“We are just focusing on trying to catch up and trying to get the ballots out,” Witzel said. “We are supposed to be processing requests within 48 hours but right now we are processing requests from Thursday.”

Elena Hilby, the clerk for the city of Sun Prairie, said the city has 19,631 registered voters. As of Wednesday, 1,906 absentee ballots had been processed and 4,598 had been sent out but not yet returned. 

“We are keeping up by the hair of our chinny, chin chin,” Hilby said. “But we are very busy. We are getting a request for an absentee ballot every one or two minutes.”

The surge in requests for absentee ballots is being replicated across the state. 

In Union Grove, a town of roughly 5,000 in Racine County, 399 absentee ballots and 179 drive-thru ballots have been processed, according to Village Clerk Brad Calder. In April 2016, only 195 votes out of 1,608 total votes cast were absentee, he said.

In Milwaukee, the request for absentee ballots has more than tripled from the 15,000 requested in the November 2016 presidential election, with 50,000 voters asking for them for April 7, said Neil Albrecht, executive director of the Milwaukee Elections Commission. 

In Green Bay, there have been 4,000 absentee ballot requests “and counting,” according to Chief of Staff Celestine Jeffreys, nearly double the 2,778 absentee ballots in April 2016.

In Kenosha, the number of requests is more than double that of the April 2016 election, with 9,199 absentee requests so far compared to 4,239,  said city clerk Debra Salas.

The number of absentee votes is at a record-high level in Eau Claire, too, according to city clerk Carrie Riepl. She said the city has mailed out 5,000 absentee ballots and is processing between 3,000 and 5,000 more. Another 1,100 people have cast absentee ballots in person. City officials have set up a drive-thru absentee ballot voting site where city staff guide voters through the process. 

That site has remained constantly busy, Riepl said. 

“This is the most absentee votes we’ve ever seen,” she said. “We have a backlog and we are doing everything we can to process it as fast as we can.” 

Some of the 400 poll workers needed to staff the April 7 election sites in the Eau Claire plan to work at those locations despite concerns over COVID-19, Riepl said.

“But some of them have said they just can’t do it,” she said. 

She added city staff will fill in if there are shortages at voting sites. Albrecht said poll workers are also in demand in Milwaukee.

“We have a fraction of the number of election workers we need, and the numbers are dwindling daily,” said Albrecht in Milwaukee. He said he did not have a current count on how many workers they had.

Hilby in Sun Prairie said she would ideally like 282 poll workers. At a bare minimum she could staff voting sites with 144 workers. Right now, she has 169. 

She did receive an email from two poll workers who said they would not be working at the polls this year due to the “Evers contradiction.” Hilby said poll workers felt it was contradictory to tell people to stay home and then ask people to work election day. 

Hilby said those working will be wearing masks and gloves. 

She said the city attorney came up with an idea to reach out to recently laid-off workers to see if they would like to work election day. She said they have started to do that and have been successful.

“We’ve had a lot of people stepping up,” she said. “They say they are young and healthy and they want to help out,” Hilby said. “We have a lot of people stepping up.”

Julian Emerson and Jonathon Sadowski contributed to this report.