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La Crosse area election clerks weigh-in on safety of in-person voting

La Crosse area election clerks weigh-in on safety of in-person voting

Wisconsin’s spring primary is in just two weeks, and as statewide efforts to combat the pandemic keep ramping up, worries on how the polls will look are, too.

Election officials at many polling stations in the area are fearful that the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic will keep some of its workers at home, many of them older with underlying health conditions — putting them at higher risk if they catch the disease.

Across the state, Gov. Tony Evers has called for a “safer-at-home” order until April 24, requiring all non-essential businesses to close and limiting communities to essential travel only.

And both state and federal governments as well as the CDC have called for no groups larger than 10 people and distancing at least six feet in between people. All of this puts a lot of limitations on workers and voters come election day.

States that have already hosted a primary election have experienced waves of poll workers cancelling, leaving election officials struggling to fill the spots.

Wisconsin has about 30,000 poll workers across the state, according to the Wisconsin Elections Commission.

County Clerk Ginny Dankmeyer

Dankmeyer

So far, in the 32 La Crosse County polling places and 18 municipalities, only about 20 poll workers have chosen not to work on April 7, County Clerk Ginny Dankmeyer said.

“I think overall, there will be enough poll workers to make election day happen,” she said.

But smaller communities in the county are being hit in bigger waves than others.

The village of West Salem has lost nearly half of its 22 poll workers.

“It’s not good,” said Teresa DeLong, the village administrator. “And I don’t blame them. I do not blame them.”

“I don’t understand how they expect us to do this. We’re under so much pressure,” DeLong said of clerks around the area who are balancing putting out a fair and accessible election against community health risks.

One woman who opted out of working West Salem’s polls on April 7 said she felt like she had no choice.

“It was a difficult decision,” said Judy, a 73-year-old West Salem native. “And listening to the info that’s given out by the government that we’re supposed to be more cautious. I didn’t know what the safety cautions would be there. I don’t know how they could have people come in and vote.”

Judy, who did not want her last name printed in this story, started working the polls about a decade ago after retiring and has been doing it ever since.

“They said they needed volunteers and I thought it would be something that I could give back to my community and it would be interesting,” she said. “And I’ll go back to it.”

To fill the gaps, election clerks are reaching out to schools and libraries and posting on social media to look for volunteers, many people now faced with sudden free time. Some of the clerks have even asked their own families to step in and help.

In the town of Hamilton, it has virtually lost all 10 of its poll workers, two of them saying they’ll help if there’s no other option, and the town chair offering his assistance if needed, too.

“We’re just going to have to play it by ear and see what happens,” said Sara Schultz, the town clerk, whose son has already been helping out in her office with the influx of absentee votes.

One man did step in to help the town after hearing about its loss of poll workers.

“It just seemed like the right thing to do,” said Randy Christenson. He volunteered to work the polls for the town of Hamilton after hearing almost all of its workers weren’t able to because of the pandemic.

“A lot of people have just disappeared because they’re scared of being in public,” the 55-year-old said. “I get it, I totally understand it.”

Christenson owns Salem Surface Prep, a mobile paint stripping company, and said business has “dropped off pretty drastically because of this.”

“So it’s just another way to keep myself busy,” he said of the poll working.

He said he’s not worried about working at the polls if he takes the right steps like wearing a mask and washing his hands.

Any adult who is able to vote in a respective district, has good English language skills and is not a candidate on the ballot can be a poll worker, according to the Wisconsin Elections Commission. Volunteers are not paid, but if you are appointed by your municipality you may be compensated.

All poll workers are trained by the clerk of the voting district to do any number of tasks, such as count ballots, register voters and assist voters with equipment.

But the fears extend even further than putting our at-risk community on the polling front lines, and many election officials are hopeful the primary will be postponed.

“If us clerks get sick, honey, there’s no one running elections. So we’re just holding our breath here for two weeks,” DeLong said, “I am just angry. I am disappointed we can’t even postpone this a month.”

Even with the safety protocols in place, like using wipes and distancing people out six feet, there are still human interactions at the polls that are unavoidable, some said.

Poll workers will still need to hold a person’s state ID to confirm them at the polls, and then the voter will need to sign the poll book, like every voter before them and after them.

“It’s just going to be too close of contact that I’m not really even comfortable with myself,” Schultz said.

Every person would still also be handed a ballot by a poll worker and use the crammed polling booths to fill it out.

“We can supply wipes, we can supply gloves, we can supply a pen for every voter — but I really don’t know how we keep our election clerks safe,” DeLong said. “For the governor to say shelter in place, don’t go out, no more than 10 people, but yet we still have to run an election? It is beyond comprehension.”

Officials across the state have urged voters to utilize early mail-in voting,

“For the first time ever, I’ve requested mine by mail,” Dankmeyer said, noting she is usually a big advocate for visiting the polls on election day. “We don’t know what will happen in a week or two … that’s why we want to get everybody to vote now, everybody by mail.”

But voting by mail comes posed with its own risks, ballots being sent through the mailing system twice, going in and out of people’s homes, and being physically handled by both the voter and the clerks when it’s all said and done.

“As I opened my mailbox I was like, ‘oh great’,” Schultz said of processing the absentee ballots that have come into the town of Hamilton’s office. “But you have to do it. I mean, I did it with gloves on. You have to do what you have to do.”

A witness is also required to be present and sign your mail-in ballot, potentially pulling some people out of self-isolation just to cast their vote.

As of Tuesday, Evers has indicated that the state will not postpone its April 7 election date, and some can understand why.

“We don’t know how long this is going to go. And I mean, if this goes through the summer, then you have a major election in November,” Judy said, adding that the uncertainty was another reason for her to opt out of working the polls. “Hopefully by then this is all done with and we can get back to normal.”

And the area has more than just the presidential race to think about this election, with every county board seat up for reelection, a mayoral race in Onalaska, school board races and a state Supreme Court seat all on the ballot.

“There’s so much more on the ballot than just the presidential primary. That’s why I think we can’t really delay this election, because there’s so much on it,” Dankmeyer said.

Wisconsin’s first election of the year was in February, and along with the April 7 date, it will see two other elections statewide before the year is up.

One thing is clear: These are unprecedented times that have a particular ticking time clock that is Nov. 3.

“If us clerks get sick, honey, there’s no one running elections. So we’re just holding our breath here for two weeks. I am just angry. I am disappointed we can’t even postpone this a month.” Teresa DeLong, West Salem village administrator

So far, in the 32 La Crosse County polling places and 18 municipalities, only about 20 poll workers have chosen not to work on April 7.

“If us clerks get sick, honey, there’s no one running elections. So we’re just holding our breath here for two weeks. I am just angry. I am disappointed we can’t even postpone this a month.”

Teresa DeLong, West Salem village administrator

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