MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin clerks are down nearly 7,000 poll workers and scores of municipalities are so short-staffed because of the coronavirus pandemic that they won't be able to offer any in-person voting on Election Day, according to a survey that state election officials released Tuesday.
The lack of staffing coupled with an anticipated deluge of absentee ballots led Democratic appointees on the Wisconsin Election Commission to predict that next Tuesday's election will be a mess.
"We're proceeding with our fingers crossed and unicorn wishes that we're going to be able to cobble together a way (to administer) this election," Commissioner Ann Jacobs said during an emergency meeting Tuesday. "What are we going to tell people when there aren't any poll workers? Sorry, we're not having an election today?"
The election features the state's presidential primary, a state Supreme Court race and hundreds of local races. A number of other states have postponed their primaries. But Democratic Gov. Tony Evers has been unable to reach any consensus with Republican legislators to delay Wisconsin's election or make any changes to election procedures.
The lack of poll workers presents a serious problem. The commission asked all 1,850 local jurisdictions over the weekend for an update on staffing levels. The 1,320 jurisdictions that responded reported they were down 6,939 poll workers as of Monday, with 111 saying they lack enough workers to open a single polling site and another 126 reporting that they didn't have enough people to staff all polling sites.
The commission and the state Department of Administration have been reaching out to colleges, labor unions and other groups to recruit poll workers. The commission also is trying to build a pool of emergency poll workers who could deploy on Election Day as needed, commission Administrator Meagan Wolfe said. The DOA has sent an email to state workers asking them to serve as poll workers as well, she said.
Meanwhile, the number of absentee ballot requests has continued to surge. As of Tuesday morning, voters had requested 972,232 ballots and returned 337,563, easily crushing the previous record for absentee voting.
Counting cannot begin until 7 a.m. on Election Day. Municipalities have been warning that they'll need extra time to count them and that the results might not be posted for days. Wolfe told the commission that her staff has advised clerks to do their best to finish on Election Day but to be prepared to reconvene the next morning to finish.
Democrats and liberal-leaning groups have filed three federal lawsuits in Madison in an attempt to postpone the election, force a move to a mail-only voting and give clerks 10 extra days to count absentee ballots. It's unclear when a ruling might come.
"This election is going to go down as the worst election in Wisconsin history," Commissioner Julie Glancey, another Democratic commission appointee, said.
Although Ohio postponed its primary hours before polls were supposed to open, Commission Chairman Dean Knudson, a Republican appointee, said it's too late to make any changes to Wisconsin's election.