“I was just distraught this morning when I opened it and saw that you have to have a witness,” said Cohen, who is 77 and a retired paralegal. “I thought, ‘I just can’t do it.’ They suggested having the mailman look through the picture window, but I’m on the third floor, so that won’t work.”
Voters, election officials and civil rights leaders across Wisconsin are angry that the state legislature is going forward with the April 7 presidential primary and local elections even as the novel coronavirus continues its march across the country. The public health risk is too high, and asking voters to venture out of their homes directly contradicts state and local emergency orders to shelter in place, they say.
Leaders in the Republican-controlled legislature say that moving the voting date so late in the process would sow confusion and create a leadership vacuum in cities and towns holding contests for municipal posts that will be vacant as early as mid-April.
“I understand things are getting much different out there, and there are obviously a lot of concerns about what an election would look like on April 7, with the amount of poll workers and volunteers that we’re going to need,” Scott L. Fitzgerald, the Republican majority leader in the Wisconsin Senate, said in a news conference last week. “We’re monitoring it very closely, but at this point, I don’t see a change really to the April 7 date.”
Wisconsin is the only one of the 11 states originally scheduled to hold contests in April that has not postponed or dramatically altered voting amid the pandemic.
Critics say the decision threatens the integrity and fairness of the vote. They predict that thousands of voters will be unable to cast ballots either because polling locations will be closed or because they were unable to navigate the unfamiliar and complex process of voting by mail.
Voting rights groups have turned to the federal courts for intervention, supported by some county clerks in the state.
“We do not have the technical capacity to actually run a vote-from-home campaign in the state of Wisconsin, where every voter could actually get an absentee ballot, know how to vote that absentee ballot and participate in the election,” said Debra Cronmiller, executive director of the state chapter of the League of Women Voters, one of the plaintiffs in three federal lawsuits seeking a variety of remedies, including lifting the witness requirement or postponing the elections.
“We are asking for the time to identify what steps the state would need to take to ensure a fair and safe election for all,” Cronmiller said.
In a nearly three-hour telephone hearing Wednesday, U.S. District Judge William M. Conley told lawyers that he was disinclined to postpone the election without evidence that hundreds of thousands would see their voting rights curtailed — evidence that won’t be available until Election Day, he said.
At the same time, Conley rebuked lawyers for the Republican-controlled General Assembly, making clear that lawmakers and Gov. Tony Evers (D) are the ones who should have canceled the April 7 contests.
“Let’s assume that this is a bad decision from the perspective of public health — and it could be excruciatingly bad,” Conley said. “I don’t think it’s the job of a federal district judge to act as a super health department for the state of Wisconsin.”
Conley closed the hearing around 6 p.m. with a promise of a decision “as soon as possible.”
The power to delay an election in Wisconsin lies with the legislature, but Fitzgerald and the Republican state House speaker, Robin Vos, noted that the governor, Evers, did not push to postpone Tuesday’s vote.
“If I could have changed the election on my own I would have but I can’t without violating state law,” the governor said in a statement Wednesday night. “I’ve asked the legislature to do its part to ensure a fair and safe election and I hope we can get some clarity as soon as possible.”
Evers did ask this month for mail ballots to be sent to every registered voter. He also asked the legislature to lift photo ID requirements for mail-in voters, extend in-person early voting through the final weekend before the election and move back the deadlines for returning absentee ballots, as well as counting them.
Republican lawmakers said no to all of it, infusing an already fraught situation with rancorous partisan undertones.
Democrats and voting activists have accused GOP lawmakers of trying to suppress voter turnout intentionally to help an incumbent candidate for the state Supreme Court, conservative Justice Daniel Kelly, win reelection.
“They have cynically calculated that lower turnout will help the conservative candidate,” said Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause in Wisconsin, a government watchdog group.
Republicans have disputed that, saying they do not want voters to be confused by a shift in Election Day. But in late 2018, they considered changing the date of the Democratic presidential primary, which was expected to draw high turnout, to protect Kelly’s candidacy. At the time, Fitzgerald said that moving the Democratic contest to March would give the justice a “better chance” of winning.
Now, with former vice president Joe Biden holding a dominant lead in the delegate count against Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), state and local election officials said they expect a less robust turnout for the primary. On Wednesday, Sanders called for the Wisconsin election to be delayed.
Neither Fitzgerald nor Vos responded to requests for interviews.
Ben Wikler, the chairman of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, said Republican unwillingness to make changes this year, combined with their very different approach to the election before the coronavirus pandemic threatened turnout, is enough to question their motives.
“None of the explanations Republicans are giving in Wisconsin for opposing expanded access to absentee voting are even facially plausible,” Wikler said. “Rural voters as well as urban, older voters as well as college students — everyone is hurt by intensively restrictive absentee voting rules in the era of covid.”
Wikler rejected a claim by Vos that extending early in-person voting through the coming weekend would cause confusion.
He also noted that the state GOP on Friday sued clerks in the state’s two biggest counties — which include Madison and Milwaukee — after they announced that they would allow homebound voters to check a box on their absentee ballot applications labeled “indefinitely confined,” which would allow them to skip a cumbersome process of uploading an image of their photo ID.
Evers has not escaped criticism, either. Even Democrats have accused the governor of waiting too long to propose changes to the voting process.
Of particular concern is the difficulty of applying for and mailing an absentee ballot. In addition to potentially coming into contact with strangers to obtain a witness signature, there is also widespread concern that rural voters and minorities in urban areas with unreliable mail service could be unable to obtain a ballot.
“I’ve been getting calls and calls from seniors who are having trouble requesting their absentee ballot because they can’t upload their photo ID,” said Scott McDonell, the Dane County clerk. “They have no idea how to do that. They are afraid to go out, and they shouldn’t go out to try to photocopy it.”
Many African American voters, too, are skeptical of absentee voting, said Angela Lang, founder and executive director of the Milwaukee-based Black Leaders Organizing for Communities.
“If people don’t physically see their ballot go into the machine, I think people are sometimes a little skeptical of that,” Lang said. “And I get it. We’ve literally had to fight and die for the right to vote, so people want to ensure that their ballot is counted. They want to see it handed over to an election official.”
To address that, Lang’s group has been reaching out to voters to explain the process of voting by mail, as well as recommending drive-through voting options in those communities that offer it.
Meanwhile, city and town clerks across the state are sprinting to prepare for Tuesday. They ordered hundreds of thousands more envelopes once it became clear that an unprecedented number of voters would request absentee ballots. Some have even built plexiglass shields behind which poll workers can sit while checking in voters.
“Communities have gotten pretty creative,” said Meg Wartman, the Waukesha County clerk. Wartman also predicted that in-person voting would not be too chaotic on April 7, because so many voters — more than 100,000 — have already requested absentee ballots (and have two more days to do so). Wartman added that in 2016, the total vote in her county was 150,000.
The state sent out guidance on how to obtain a witness signature, including asking a neighbor, mailman or delivery person to watch through a window.
It is also acceptable to witness via video chat “with the ballot left outside of the door or in a mailbox for the witness to sign,” the guidance states.
That’s what Cohen said she plans to do, with help from a volunteer from the League of Women Voters.
“She comes over and stands across the hall, and I stand in my doorway and I fill out my ballot and sign it and put it in the envelope,” Cohen said. “I set it on the floor, and she has gloves and wipes and a mask, and picks it up off the floor and signs it. And she’ll drop it at a dropbox.”
Despite such efforts, many voters could have trouble casting their ballots.
More than 60 percent, or about 800, of Wisconsin’s jurisdictions have reported they are short a total of 7,000 poll workers — 111 of those jurisdictions “critically” short, without enough workers to open a single polling location on Tuesday, according to the Wisconsin Election Commission. Some cities and towns are offering a single location instead of the usual 10 or 15. And the consolidations have raised concerns about unsafe longer lines.
The commission also reported that more than 1 million voters have requested absentee ballots, straining the state’s supply of envelopes. (In 2016, about 200,000 voted absentee in Wisconsin’s spring election.) A new order of more than 1 million ballot envelopes has been placed, but some are not expected to arrive before April 7.
The commission staff tried to procure hand sanitizer for every polling location but, due to a national shortage, contracted with local distilleries to produce alcohol-based sanitizer. Each polling location will receive two liters of it.
The commission also was unable to secure personal protective gear for poll workers despite numerous requests. But it did order 1.5 million pens, allowing voters to receive a clean pen to sign in and vote.
“It’s extraordinarily frustrating when people’s health and their lives are at stake,” said McDonell, the Dane County clerk, explaining how much he has struggled to ask people to work on Tuesday. “We’re at that point where you can start to see the acceleration in the number of cases locally, where it’s doubling and doubling and doubling. Before, the angel of death was on its way. Now, it’s passing over your house.”