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Milwaukee Election Officials Promise More Polling Places, Workers In Tuesday's Election

Marti Mikkelson
A long line forms outside of Riverside High School in Milwaukee during the April 7 spring election. The high school was one of only five polling places open.

Gov. Tony Evers called up the Wisconsin National Guard last week to help staff the polls for Tuesday’s fall partisan primaries. Municipal clerks across the state reported they were short about 900 election workers, including in some areas of Milwaukee County. But in the city of Milwaukee, officials say they won’t need the Guard and they don’t expect a repeat of problems from the April election.

Voters will cast ballots Tuesday in partisan primaries for Wisconsin House and state legislative seats. Early in-person voting began two weeks ago at 15 polling places across Milwaukee. For Tuesday, nearly 170 locations will be available — many more than the five polling places in April.

>>How To Vote In Milwaukee During The Coronavirus Pandemic

Milwaukee Election Commissioner Claire Woodall-Vogg says 1,400 workers will staff those sites, compared to a typical August primary where as few as 1,100 work. She says after the April 7 spring primaries, people were eager to apply to work the polls in the future. The city only could staff five large sites in April because many poll workers canceled due to concerns over the coronavirus. And, long lines trailed down the streets outside some of the sites.

“So, after April 7, we’ve seen a very large increase in citizens applying to be poll workers. I think they saw our need; it was very visible by having to go down to only five voting centers and as a result we are trying to build a new generation of poll workers. A lot of our election workers had been with us for 20, 30 years and are at high risk for COVID,” she says.

Woodall-Vogg says because the April election occurred during the early days of the coronavirus, election administrators didn’t have enough time to safely develop protocols for multiple polling places. She says but now, early voters and those who cast ballots on Tuesday will notice new safety protocols in place at the sites.

“Every poll book receiving table will have 6-foot plexiglass barriers between the election workers and the voters. Now, instead of having the binder with the poll book page right in front of you, we’ll be slipping that form through the slot, asking the voters to sanitize their hands if they are willing to do so, and then sign the poll book page. And then we will be sliding their ballot through the slot as well, and they will be holding their IDs up to the glass instead of handing them to the election workers,” she says.

Credit Chuck Quirmbach
Plexiglass barriers, like this one at a polling station in Wauwatosa, were used in the April 7 election.

Woodall-Vogg says the August election has also seen a huge increase in absentee voting by mail. She says the city has sent out more than 75,000 ballots to voters who requested them. That compares to about 8,000 ballots sent out during a typical August primary. Woodall-Vogg says thousands of those ballots have been pouring into the clerk’s office each day – so many, that she thinks the city might not have results on election night.

“I think there’s a very strong chance that they will come out the day afterwards because of the high volume of by-mail ballots. It takes time and it’s a process that we don’t want to rush, in order to maintain the integrity of the election process, and we want to make sure every vote is counted,” she says.

Ballots must be received in the city clerk’s office by 8 p.m. Tuesday for them to count, according to Reid Magney of the Wisconsin Elections Commission.

Magney acknowledges that in Milwaukee, nearly 2,700 voters did not receive their ballots in the mail after they requested them for the April election. And, hundreds of absentee ballots weren’t processed in the Fox Valley because of mailing issues. Magney says the Wisconsin Elections Commission has enacted safeguards so those problems won’t reoccur.

“One of the things we put into place is something called intelligent mail barcodes. Those were on the absentee ballots as they went out to voters for August. Those barcodes will also be on the ballots, on the mailing labels as they are returned to the clerk’s office, and that will help a great deal with tracking,” Magney says.

Magney says a typical August primary sees a statewide turnout of 15%-25%, depending on the competitiveness of some local races. Milwaukee election officials say they expect a 20% turnout in the city.

Marti was a reporter with WUWM from 1999 to 2021.
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