MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin could face a litany of problems if it holds its spring election as scheduled despite the coronavirus crisis, including a possible disruption in mail service interfering with absentee voting, a lack of polling sites and the risk of exposing elderly poll workers and voters to the disease, the state's chief elections officer said in a memo released Wednesday.
The election is scheduled for April 7. It features the state's presidential primary, a state Supreme Court race, a referendum on a state constitutional amendment that would establish rights for crime victims and various local elections.
Social distancing mandates, though, have raised questions about whether Wisconsin should postpone its election, as Georgia, Louisiana and Ohio have already done. Three states went ahead with their primaries on Tuesday, and some problems popped up, including in Chicago, where officials had to scramble to replace about 50 area polling sites that decided to cancel at the last minute.
Gov. Tony Evers on Tuesday banned gatherings of more than 10 people but said he wants the election to go on, saying democracy must continue and urging people to vote by absentee ballot. The Wisconsin Elections Commission scheduled an emergency meeting for late Wednesday afternoon to discuss the challenges that continuing with the election presents.
Commission Administrator Meagan Wolfe released a memo to commissioners earlier Wednesday outlining the potential problems with holding the election as scheduled. It begins by noting that the commission can't change the date unilaterally. Postponing the election would take a court order, an order from the governor or an act of the Legislature, which the Senate's majority leader, Scott Fitzgerald, has said is not going to happen.
The memo goes on to warn that a potential U.S. Postal Service shutdown could delay delivery and return of absentee ballots and therefore delay counting on election night. Wolfe said that local clerks might have to ask post offices to hold ballots and pick them up themselves.
A significant increase in absentee ballots also could delay counting on election night Wolfe said, noting that the deadline for returning them to local clerks is 8 p.m. on election night.
As of Tuesday, Wisconsin voters had cast about 173,775 absentee ballots for the election, according to the commission. That's more absentee ballots cast than were requested in each of the previous three spring elections dating back to 2017, and there's still three weeks to submit them.
Wolfe added that clerks throughout the state estimate that they're short 600,000 absentee ballot envelopes. Clerks have placed emergency orders, but there's also a statewide shortage of the special security envelope material that's normally used, she said.
Voting facilities aren't included in the ban on gatherings, but concerns are rising that Evers' order closing schools and banning visitors to nursing homes could reduce the number of physical polling places in such structures, Wolfe said. Clerks should consider relocating polling sites to places like fairgrounds, private gyms, park pavilions or government buildings with meeting space, she said.
More than half of Wisconsin poll workers are over age 60, making them especially vulnerable to the virus, Wolfe went on. Commission staffers have directed clerks to build lists of replacements such as high school or college students in case workers fall ill or don't show up. Clerks should be ready to deputize people and give them crash training courses in election administration, Wolfe wrote.
Clerks also have complained to the commission about the lack of hand sanitizer and other cleaning products, but Wolfe said there simply isn't any available.
Commissioners also should think about whether to deliver absentee ballots to people who are quarantined in their homes, Wolfe wrote.
State law already allows agents acting on behalf of hospitalized voters to pick up absentee ballots from a clerk, deliver them to the voter and then return the ballot to the clerk. The commission could decide to interpret state law as including people quarantined at home due to the virus as hospitalized voters. But that would create another raft of problems because agents would have to interact with infected voters and clerks.
Green Bay Mayor Eric Genrich tweeted Tuesday that the city of Green Bay won't be able to administer a normal election and the election should be conducted entirely through the mail. Former Gov. Tommy Thompson and outgoing Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele also have called for postponing the election.
Evers' spokeswoman, Melissa Baldauff, and Fitzgerald's spokesman, Alec Zimmerman, didn't immediately respond to emails seeking comment on the memo.