Election day chaos

(First published in the April 9, 2020 issue of City Pages)

Surprisingly high voter turnout in Wausau, despite last minute changes and the coronavirus threat

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Poll worker Jonathan Blume wore protective gear while helping voters Tuesday in Wausau. Many polling place workers wore masks and sat behind face shields as precautions to the coronavirus pandemic.

On election day Tuesday, municipal clerks were scrambling to call those who turned in absentee ballots without a witness signature to find another way to get their vote counted, says Marathon County Clerk Kim Trueblood. Why? Because of a series of last-minute, shifting changes to elections due to the coronavirus pandemic chaos. And it’s likely that many people who voted absentee thinking the witness signature requirement was waived will not have their vote counted in the end.

On Friday, April 3, Gov. Tony Evers called for a special session of the legislature to consider postponing the April 7 elections. He’d already extended the deadline for absentee ballots—a move signed off by two federal courts.

The Republican-led legislature convened Saturday but within seconds hit the gavel to adjourn without taking action. Then Monday, a day before voting, Evers made an executive order to postpone the election until June. This time Republicans did act, challenging the Democratic governor’s order. The Wisconsin Supreme Court nullified Evers’ order, and the U.S. Supreme Court nullified Evers’ extension, also nullifying the waiver for a witness signature on absentee ballots.

All that happened in the course of a few days, right before Tuesday’s election, and that left many voters confused as the election rules changed daily.

Of most concern was the nullification of the witness signature waiver, made mainly for people living alone and maintaining social distancing due to the coronavirus. Nullifying that waiver, after it was announced, meant any number of people who sent in ballots now might not have their votes counted, despite having followed the rules in place at the time.

According to the Wisconsin Elections Commission, nearly 1.3 million people requested absentee ballots, and just a little more than 1 million had been returned to clerks as of early Wednesday morning. In Marathon County, 19,223 absentee ballots were returned on time out of 24,339 sent out.

Meanwhile, elections went on. Poll workers wore face masks and gloves and sat behind makeshift clear plastic shields. Sanitization stands guarded entrances, which included multiple signs instructing voters to use social distancing procedures while voting.

The polls weren’t empty. A tally of 547 people had voted at District 1 in Wausau as of 1:10 pm Tuesday, and nearly a dozen were at the polling site — that included both absentee ballots received so far and run through the machines, as well as anyone who voted in person.

In the city of Wausau, 6,894 people turned out at the polls yesterday. Nearly that many as of Wednesday afternoon, 6,737, were received as absentee ballots. That means 13,631 people voted in Wausau. That’s more than the 13,231 who voted in the last mayoral and presidential primary election in 2016, which saw 64% voter turnout.

Based on court rulings, no election results can be released until April 13, the deadline for all ballots to be counted.

As of Wednesday afternoon, there are 2,756 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Wisconsin and 99 deaths. Confirmed cases in Marathon County has been steady at 12 since Sunday.