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State short nearly 7,000 poll workers, election officials discuss efforts to help

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MADISON (WKOW) -- Nearly 60% of municipalities are dealing with a shortage of poll workers as clerks are overwhelmed with absentee ballot requests leading to a possibility thousands of votes won’t be counted by election day.

The Wisconsin Election Commission on Tuesday said 60% of Wisconsin municipalities are short on poll workers because many are fearful to work due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Wisconsin Election Commission

That’s about a 7,000 person gap that would need to be filled in a week. Nearly every county in Wisconsin has at least one municipality concerned about their ability to open a polling place on April 7, according to a WEC memo.

Wisconsin Election Commission

The commission met on Tuesday in a virtual session to discuss the primary election as there are growing concerns about the safety of the election, obtaining enough poll workers, and how to count thousands of absentee ballots on time as clerks are already overwhelmed. 

The commission said one way to help the shortage is by allowing municipalities to consolidate to one polling location, which some cities and towns are already doing. 

If there is a shortage on election day leading to a polling location to close, the commission is currently working on a poll worker “pool” to have people on standby if they need to step in. 

WEC and the Department of Administration have reached out to colleges and universities, labor unions, state employees, and other groups to find more volunteers.

The governor is also encouraging state employees to work on election day to help fill the shortage as many older adults who typically volunteer are the most vulnerable to catching the virus.

During the meeting, emotions ran high as commissioner Ann Jacobs expressed doubts this election can be held fair and safe. She’s among many calling on lawmakers to postpone the election until May 12th, the same day the state will hold a special election for the 7th Congressional District.

“We are pretending with our fingers crossed and unicorn wishes that we will cobble up and administer the election,” said Jacobs. “What are we going to tell people who come to us and say I got coronavirus and I was a poll worker. I feel we are putting people in danger." 

WEC doesn’t have the authority to move the election. Governor Tony Evers could call on the legislature to pass a bill to push it back, but neither the governor nor Republican leaders want to do that. 

WEC Chairman Dean Knudson believes it’s too late to postpone the election as thousands of ballots have already been cast.

"Moving (the election) won’t be safer on May 12th, there’s no evidence of that," said Knudson.

Absentee Ballots

The demand for absentee ballots was also discussed at the meeting as election officials said they sent an additional 1 million envelopes across the state. As of Tuesday, these been more than 972,000 requests for absentee ballots. The deadline to request one is April, 2nd.

This shatters records compared to the 2016 presidential election, a highly contested race, where the state received over 800,000 absentee ballots ahead of election day. 

Supplies to poll workers, safety precautions:

The Wisconsin Election Commission said they will be providing sanitizer and wipes for poll workers and ordered millions of pens for voters to use so people don’t have to touch pens used by someone else.

Election officials said every county will get alcohol-based sanitizer products made by local distilleries as the country faces a shortage of hand sanitizer people typically buy from the store.

As for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) such as gloves and facemask, poll workers will not receive any said Administrator of WEC Megan Wolfe. She emphasized since it’s in high demand for health care workers the state won’t be purchasing for volunteers to use next week.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has advised that this equipment may actually increase risk for untrained personnel and that hand washing should remain the focus of preventative efforts,” according to the WEC memo.

Each polling place will also receive disinfecting wipes, the state requested 1.5 million and expect to deliver them this week.

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