Elections

Why Were Only Five Polling Places Open in Milwaukee This Week?

An election worker walks between lines of voters at Hamilton High School in Milwuakee, Wisc., during the presidential primary election, April 7, 2020. (Daniel Acker/Reuters)
Poor planning and coordination among government officials made in-person voting more dangerous that it had to be.

Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden suggested last week that in-person voting in Wisconsin’s April 7 elections wouldn’t be dangerous, despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, so long as voters were spaced “six to ten feet apart, one at a time going in, and having the machines scrubbed down.” In much of the state, that was true. A huge increase in early absentee voting meant that many polling places were sparsely attended on Election Day.

While there weren’t lines of voters in the state capital of Madison, what made Tuesday’s election dangerous was that the number of polling places in Milwaukee — the state’s biggest city and the location of a COVID outbreak — had been reduced from their normal 180 to five.

If city and state officials had found a way to keep Milwaukee’s 180 polling places open, only a little more than 100 voters on average would have passed through each polling place throughout the course of the day (a total of 18,803 voters cast ballots in person in Milwaukee).

As it happened, the reduced number of polling places meant that thousands of voters formed long lines at each of the five polling centers. Voters did their best to maintain physical separation, but some of them waited two hours to cast ballots.

There are signs that poor planning and coordination among government officials made in-person voting in Wisconsin more dangerous than it had to be.

Twenty-five days elapsed between the declaration of a national emergency regarding the coronavirus on March 13 and the elections scheduled in Wisconsin on April 7. And during that time, there was a failure of planning and a breakdown in communication between state and local officials to ensure enough polling places stayed open.

Democratic governor Tony Evers opposed postponing the election from the time the national emergency was announced until Friday, April 3, four days before the election.

On April 1, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported that Evers planned on using the National Guard to serve as poll workers at short-staffed sites, but that plan “was news to City of Milwaukee Election Commission Executive Director Neil Albrecht, who said Wednesday the city learned through media reports that the National Guard would be used at voting sites.”

“Had we had that information [about the National Guard] sooner, I absolutely think it could have influenced the number of voting centers,” Albrecht told the Capital Times on April 7. “The timing really did not allow us to maximize their presence and think about the possibility of opening more centers.”

Just how many more polling places could Milwaukee have opened up if officials had known about the National Guard earlier? “I’m just not going to speculate. I’m not going to dwell on this issue,” Albrecht tells National Review in an interview. “I don’t want to be pulled into a lot of finger-pointing around ‘Should this have happened sooner? Or: Is there more that could have been done in this area?’”

Albrecht says that as he was trying to finalize the number of polling places last week, “the number of poll workers that we were going to have was changing on a daily basis. It was literally like trying to hold water in our hands.”

According to Albrecht, the city of Milwaukee had fewer than 400 election workers on April 7, compared to the typical “2,000 election workers to staff the 180 sites” for a presidential primary.

So, during a normal presidential primary, the city has about 11 poll workers for each polling place. On Tuesday, that number was closer to 80 poll workers per center, plus 30 National Guardsmen.

If the city had nearly 20 percent of its usual number of poll workers, plus the National Guard, why did it only open 3 percent of its usual number of polling places?

“Well, for two reasons,” Albrecht replies. “When I had to make the judgment call on how many centers we could operate, I had to base it on the information I had at that moment in time. At that point, we were probably down to about 250 election workers. And that number was continuing to dwindle. So, I had to make a commitment for a number that I knew we could operate without compromising the integrity of the election but also that we could do safely.”

The second reason, he says, is that health and safety precautions required more workers at each site who were cleaning the polling booths after each voter cast a ballot, distributing masks and gloves, “enforcing social distancing or monitoring activities outside of the polling place, in addition to the voting room. Every aspect of administering the election was much more labor intensive than a normal election. So 100 people [working] at a voting site for this election was probably like 10 people at a voting site for a normal election.” Albrecht says that the five sites selected for voting provided a lot of square footage inside to ensure social distancing. Health and safety regulations required polling centers to have no more than 50 to 100 people inside the premises at a time, he says.

Milwaukee wasn’t the only city where a reduction in the number polling places caused long lines and waits. The city of Green Bay went from its typical 31 polling places to just two, and some voters had to wait hours to cast ballots. One Green Bay alderman, who contends city officials made in-person voting much worse than it had to be, is calling for an investigation into the decision to open just two polling places.

“I volunteered, and I asked people in my district and got at least a dozen people” to volunteer as poll workers, Green Bay alderman Chris Wery tells National Review. “The mayor’s chief of staff said they weren’t taking any volunteers.” Wery said he offered to help two weeks ago, and he’s aware of another dozen volunteers from the local Republican Party who were not accepted to serve as poll workers. He also says the city failed to make use of the National Guard.

Green Bay mayor Eric Geinrich responded to criticism in a statement on Facebook: “We had the option of bringing inexperienced individuals into the process, but our city clerk and I did not feel comfortable implicating untrained city employees, members of the public, or members of the National Guard in a dangerous and stressful environment.” 

While municipalities are in charge of running polling places in Wisconsin, state officials bear responsibility for how the election played out.

Weeks passed between the time the national emergency was declared on March 13 and the April 7 elections, but some local officials weren’t aware that the National Guard would be of assistance until they learned about it in the news on April 1.

Governor Evers did not come out in favor of postponing the election until April 3, and when Wisconsin’s Republican legislature rejected his proposal on April 4 it took no actions to ensure local officials had the resources necessary to keep their polling places open.

On April 6, Evers issued an executive order to move the election to June, after having called such a unilateral action illegal a few days earlier. The state’s supreme court enjoined Evers’s order after the legislature’s leaders challenged it.

Each of these decisions deserves scrutiny, but so too do the decisions of government officials that may have made in-person voting more dangerous than it had to be.

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