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Politics & Government

Wisconsin Poll Workers Prepare For April 7 Election Under Coronavirus Guidelines

charles_allis_art_museum_i_0.jpg
Maayan Silver
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A polling place at the Charles Allis Art Museum during Wisconsin's February state and local primary.

Wisconsin is plowing forward with its April 7 election amid concerns of many election officials. One of the biggest obstacles to a smooth election is the shortage of poll workers. And many are staying home because of concerns about COVID-19.

One person with a longstanding tradition of working the polls is Larry “Spike” Bandy. He’s been an election inspector at Gordon Park in Riverwest for about 10 years – but won’t be showing up on Tuesday.

“I'm 69 years old. And I've had two heart attacks and the case of congestive heart failure. I have asthma and a kidney problem. So I am one of the target people that they're saying is susceptible to catching the coronavirus, so I'm not going anywhere,” explains Bandy.

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Bandy says it hurts not to be able to work the polls, especially helping people with issues like photo ID and proof of residence. 

“A lot of times I'll have to step in and really try to go the extra mile to help the person find a way to get a ballot,” says Bandy.

Nearly 60% of jurisdictions statewide are reporting they don’t have enough poll workers. And over 100 jurisdictions can’t find staff to open even one polling place.  

In an unprecedented move, Gov. Tony Evers is enlisting the Wisconsin National Guard to fill in at some polling locations. But staffing isn’t the only concern. There’s another conundrum about in-person voting this Election Day, explains UW-Madison professor David Canon.

“No public gatherings larger than 10 people are allowed in the state right now. Well, most polling places will be well over 10 people with the number of poll workers, poll watchers and just the voters. So right there we’re in violation of that state regulation,” says Canon.

"Well, most polling places will be well over 10 people with the number of poll workers, poll watchers and just the voters. So right there we're in violation of that state regulation." - David Canon

Prospective poll workers in Milwaukee were told there will be five large voting centers, down from 180 neighborhood polling places the city normally operates. That’s to make up for a severe shortage of poll workers, but it also raises the issue of keeping everybody moving through those centers safe. 

Kayla Sell, a health care administrator, is willing to take on that risk. For about eight years in the 2000s, before online voter registration, she helped people register.

“And so when I heard that the polls were going to be dealing with reduced availability of workers, I wanted to make sure that I helped out in any way that I could, so I figured, what better way than to go be a poll worker for the day and make sure that the people that do need to come in person to vote are able to do so?” says Sell.

She doesn’t have underlying health conditions or kids so she feels responsible for shouldering a bit more of the burden. And, of course, she wants to do it safely.

Officials running the training didn’t have a lot of details, she says, but said they would have gloves, masks and cleaning supplies on hand. State election officials have been addressing a shortage of sanitizer and disinfectant in recent weeks.

Sell is also concerned the consolidation of polling places might cause a lot of confusion when some people are already confused about voting. 

“And now as we're changing up where they're supposed to vote and all those types of things, it just feels very disjointed for something that is such a fundamental right as a citizen,” says Sell.

She feels like election officials are doing the best they can with the hand they were dealt.

Officials are in the process of finalizing plans for the voting centers. Voters will be able to find their voting place at myvote.wi.gov

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