Coronavirus crashes the Wisconsin primary

By Zach Montellaro

The coronavirus pandemic is wreaking havoc on Wisconsin’s upcoming statewide election, one of the only presidential primaries still scheduled in April.

The state is facing a huge shortage in poll workers ahead of Tuesday’s vote. Local elections officials may have to close and consolidate precincts to manage the situation, and some are warning of steep drops in turnout. State officials are urging voters to request absentee ballots so they don’t have to vote in person, but there isn’t the time or resources, or the appetite among state legislators, to just send ballots or even ballot request forms to all voters, the plan adopted by some states postponing their elections.

All of this is happening as Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat elected in 2018, has asked the federal government to issue a major disaster declaration for the entire state over coronavirus — but has stood firm, along with other officials, on holding the April 7 election as planned. The resulting problems, finger-pointing and lawsuits seeking delays are amplifying warnings from election administrators and voting-rights advocates who say the country is already running out of time to prepare for holding the November election amid a pandemic.

FILE - In this Saturday, March 28, 2020, file photo, Brenda Jones checks over her ballot as she votes absentee during drive-up early voting in Milwaukee. Preparations for Wisconsin's presidential primary and spring election that's just a week away on April 7 continue, even in the face of a growing number of COVID-19 cases statewide and lawsuits seeking a delay and other changes to how the election is run. Monday, March 30, 2020 is the deadline for voters to register to vote absentee. (Rick Wood/Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel via AP)

Wisconsin officials, including Evers, have resisted postponing the April 7 election in large part because the presidential primary between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders is not the only vote being held next week. Wisconsin also regularly schedules spring general elections for critical state and local offices, including state Supreme Court justice and mayor of Milwaukee, the state’s largest city.

But as Americans adopt social distancing to slow the spread of coronavirus, nearly 60 percent of Wisconsin’s municipalities are reporting a shortage of poll workers, according to a report on Tuesday from the administrator of the Wisconsin Elections Commission. More than 100 jusriditictions said they lack the ability to staff even one voting site right now.

The state elections commission authorized local clerks to “consolidate polling places due to a shortage of election inspectors.”

But the commission told local administrators that they can’t “eliminate the opportunity for Election Day voting, at least absent an order from a state or local health official,” according to another memo from Meagan Wolfe, the commission’s administrator. As a result, Wisconsin politicians from both parties have been strongly encouraging voters to request absentee ballots for weeks, bidding to keep engagement high while keeping voters at home.

As of Tuesday morning, over 972,000 voters across Wisconsin had requested absentee ballots. That’s a record for Wisconsin, Wolfe said at a commission meeting on Tuesday, and well over the 250,000 absentee ballots cast in the 2016 primaries — but well short of total turnout that year, when about 2.1 million people voted.

Joe Biden's campaign has adjusted to the new abnormal in Wisconsin by pushing, via text message and social media outreach, to persuade voters to cast absentee ballots. Biden is relying on his vast network of state and local endorsements in the state, and he held a tele-townhall with faith leaders that was hosted by the campaign's co-chair, Rep. Cedric Richmond, to maximize support from black voters, Biden's base.

Until coronavirus shut everything down, Biden's campaign was expecting to continue the momentum he showed in March, when he beat Bernie Sanders in six states the Vermont senator won in 2016, and score a huge win in Wisconsin, which Sanders carried over Hillary Clinton four years earlier by 13 percentage points.

Evers called last week for every voter to be mailed an absentee ballot. But election administrators said they didn’t have the supplies to do that, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported, and Republican state legislative leaders balked at the request, calling it logistically impossible.

“His last-minute scheme of a mail-in ballot election is logistically impossible and incredibly flawed,” state House Speaker Robin Vos, a Republican, said in a statement on Friday. “In fact, other states say it’s impossible to implement, especially two weeks before the election with countless staffing, postal and safety considerations; our local clerks are already running out of ballots and supplies.”

Absentee ballots can be requested through April 2.

The difficulties have spawned a handful of lawsuits, including some seeking to postpone the election and others looking to loosen requirements about how people can vote in Wisconsin. Progressive groups from SEIU to Souls to the Polls are calling for the election to be extended, citing voter uncertainty about whether polling places are open and concerns about access to early voting. In parts of Milwaukee, for example, early voting was open and then closed — and then reopened with drive-through availability, while at the same time, other polling locations in the suburbs allowed in-person early voting without disruption.

U.S. District Judge William Conley consolidated three of the cases over the weekend and said the court will hold a hearing on Wednesday “via videoconference, telephone, or perhaps, for a limited number of people, in person,” if necessary.

Some election officials in the state are warning of dire consequences if the election goes on as planned next week.

Neil Albrecht, the executive director of the Milwaukee Election Commission, said in a filing supporting the postponement of the election that he expected no more than 25 percent of Milwaukee’s trained poll staff members to be able to work the election at polling places and ballot counting locations, with the number “decreasing daily.” Recruitment efforts to attract more workers “have been unsuccessful,” and Albrecht said it’s “virtually certain” that his office will not be able to staff polling locations across the city or process absentee ballots efficiently.

In a worse-case scenario where it is impossible to conduct an “in-person election,” he projected that turnout, based on the current absentee balloting requests, would be reduced by 44 percent from what they originally anticipated. He also cited widespread confusion among voters on the absentee voting process, and said it would take his reduced staff days to count submitted ballots.

“There are a lot of concerns about being ready for an election one week from today during this pandemic," Randy Bryce, the co-chair of Sanders' campaign in the state and a 2018 congressional candidate, said. "We’ve seen people in Florida become ill as a result of participating in their election. We need to be sure that everything is in place to make it a safe environment for everyone, including voters and poll workers alike.”

Marc Caputo, Natasha Korecki and Holly Otterbein contributed to this report.