Voting advocates say Wisconsin election should be a warning

Shortage of poll workers leads to consolidated sites, long lines

Voters in Milwaukee, Wisconsin waited in line about two hours Tuesday at at Riverside University High School, one of the few polling places open in the city after most were consolidated due to a shortage of poll workers fearful of contracting COVID-19.  (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Voters in Milwaukee, Wisconsin waited in line about two hours Tuesday at at Riverside University High School, one of the few polling places open in the city after most were consolidated due to a shortage of poll workers fearful of contracting COVID-19. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Posted April 8, 2020 at 6:00am

The long lines, closed polling sites and last-minute political wrangling that characterized Tuesday’s elections in Wisconsin could be a preview of what’s to come across the country in November if state and congressional officials don’t start to prepare now, according to voting rights advocates.

“We’re going to see a massive change in the way people are voting and the way election officials are going to have to run their elections,” said Lawrence Norden, director of election reform at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School. “The real question is, are we going to make the changes necessary to avoid an election meltdown?”

Wisconsin was the first state to have in-person voting amid a statewide stay-at-home order, making it a test of how to hold elections during the coronavirus pandemic. Voting rights advocates largely saw it as a failure.

[Supreme Court stops extra time for ballots in first COVID-19 ruling]

The Democratic governor and Republicans in charge of the legislature fought until the hours before the polls opened over whether to postpone in-person voting or extend deadlines to file absentee ballots, sowing confusion about where, when and whether voters would be expected at the polls.

Voters who risked their health, and defied the statewide stay-at-home order, on Tuesday often waited hours in lines that snaked around city blocks, according to local media reports. They were greeted by poll workers in ski goggles and full protective gear, including State Assembly Speaker Robin Vos. In one of the more surreal scenes from the day, Vos, dressed in a surgical mask, rubber gloves and a plastic gown, stood in front of a media camera and declared, “You are incredibly safe to go out.”

A ‘red siren’

For some advocates, the chaos in Wisconsin was a bleak preview of the November elections if states are ill-prepared.

“This is a shining red siren of what could happen in November if Congress and the states don’t act to change the way elections are run,” said Sean Eldridge, the president of the liberal grassroots organization Stand Up America.

Wisconsin officials reportedly struggled to find supplies, such as envelopes, to respond to a surge in absentee ballot requests. As of last week, the Wisconsin Elections Commission had issued more than 1 million absentee ballots, four times the number issued in the 2016 spring elections.

Workers saying they were unwilling to staff the polls forced officials to consolidate voting sites, resulting in long lines. Poll workers tend to be senior citizens, who are more vulnerable to the highly contagious virus.

Democrats worried that the situation put them at a disadvantage because Republicans have been less likely to express concern about exposure to the virus, and it could suppress turnout in urban areas, where Democrats typically have more voters, because social distancing is harder there.

The issues in Wisconsin underscored how state and local election officials are scrambling in real time to adjust a reality where voters are afraid to cast ballots in person. A spokeswoman for the National Association for Secretaries of State said Tuesday that officials are “learning valuable lessons while conducting primaries in this emergency situation that will be applied to November.”

But officials may need state legislatures to act to further respond to the ongoing crisis.

Michael Morley, a Florida State University law professor who has studied emergency election statutes, noted that the legal chaos stemmed from a lack of rules in Wisconsin that govern voting in an emergency.

“The state didn’t have the statutory infrastructure it needed to be able to respond,” Morley said of Wisconsin.

Laws relating to election emergencies vary widely depending on the state, with some of the most common statutes allowing polling places to be moved. Wisconsin, Massachusetts and New Hampshire do not have any laws relating to election emergencies, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Voting rights advocates are also calling for states to extend early voting periods and relax restrictions on absentee ballots, such as requirements that voters get witness signatures or to provide an excuse for not voting in person.

But partisan disputes over ballot access have persisted even during the height of the pandemic.

At a White House briefing Tuesday, President Donald Trump said there was no concern about holding Wisconsin’s election until he endorsed a conservative state Supreme Court justice on the ballot.

“Mail ballots are a very dangerous thing,” Trump said.

The Republican-controlled legislature in Kentucky, for example, passed a law before recessing because of the pandemic in late March that would require voters to present photo ID at polls in November. That law was vetoed by Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear.

In Georgia, Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger launched a voter fraud task force to investigate the flood of absentee ballots expected in the rescheduled May 19 primary. State Democratic Party Executive Director Scott Hogan decried the move as “voter intimidation.”

And it’s not clear if state legislatures will be ready and willing to act to modify election laws if they need to. Nearly two dozen state legislatures have adjourned, suspended or postponed their sessions amid the pandemic, according to the NCSL.

Sylvia Albert, director of voting and elections at Common Cause, said she is anticipating state legislatures taking action ahead of November to allow local officials to have more flexibility.

“Really, that’s the key to me,” Albert said. “The local election officials need to be able to decide what is the best option for them, and in no way is it one-size-fits-all.”

Pressure on Congress

Election officials have already been stressing the need for resources from Washington to deal with an expected surge in voting by mail, which would require additional equipment and supplies.

“When they say they need resources, when they say they need certain things to carry this out, we’ve got to listen to them,” Ben Hovland, chairman of the federal Election Assistance Commission, said in a Tuesday interview.

On March 25, Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate, a Republican and the president of the National Association of Secretaries of State, penned an open letter with President-elect Maggie Toulouse Oliver, the Democratic New Mexico secretary of state. They asked Congress to “recognize the necessity for flexible funding to meet each of our specific needs,” and to provide aid to the U.S. Postal Service.

Congress allocated $400 million to be sent to states to prepare for upcoming elections in its latest bill responding to the pandemic. But that figure falls short of the $2 billion the Brennan Center estimates is necessary to expand online voter registration, adjust to a surge of voting by mail and ensure that polling places are safe.

Some advocates said Congress needs to act this month to give state and local election officials enough time to prepare for November.

”Time is really running out,” Norden said.

The divide over expanding voting by mail has fallen along partisan lines, with Democrats pushing for federal mandates and Republicans slamming the proposals as an attempt to federalize elections.

Norden said the election in Wisconsin “exposes the absurdity of the conversation happening over mail voting in Washington right now.” The reality, Norden said, is that more voters are going to want to vote by mail regardless of the debate happening in Congress, so states need to be ready to handle that.

Democratic leaders have said providing more election assistance is a top priority for the next aid package. And pressure could mount if Congress returns this month.

Stand Up America is engaging its 2 million members to pressure Congress to act on election assistance. Its members have so far made more than 70,000 calls to Capitol Hill. That effort is ramping up.

Eldridge said Democratic leaders, who have been advocating for more funding and additional federal mandates such as expanding vote-by-mail and early in-person voting, should make election assistance funding “non-negotiable.”

“This isn’t an abstract problem. What we’re seeing in Wisconsin is that coronavirus is already disrupting our elections,” Eldridge said. “This isn’t something that could happen. It’s something that's happening right now.”

Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.