Local clerks scrambling to find poll workers

With some election workers concerned about their health, officials look for replacements to staff voting places
Ozaukee Press staff

Several polling places on April 7 may be shorthanded as a number of poll workers have bowed out due to coronavirus concerns, complicating matters when it comes to a flood of absentee ballots that will have to be processed on election day.

In the Village of Fredonia, 13 of the village’s 14 election inspectors have backed out, several of them on the advice of their doctors, Fredonia Clerk Sandi Tretow said.

Since then, she has been able to fill three of the empty spots, but as of now Tretow said she will likely have to rely on village employees to do the job, which will be complicated by the large number of absentee ballots being cast and which must be processed on election day.

“I should have four (poll workers) – three of them are not working all day,” Tretow said in an email.  “I think I am going to have them mostly work on processing absentee ballots,” she said.

“For the voters who come in on election day, between myself and (Administrative Assistant Ali Weston) and some of the (Department of Public Works) workers, we will help them,” she said.

The story is the same statewide, the Wisconsin Elections Commission, which on Monday sent out a call for more election inspectors since many regular poll workers are senior citizens and considered to be most at risk during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Ten of the City of Port Washington’s 65 election inspectors won’t be working election day “due to age and health conditions,” City Clerk Susan Westerbeke said. “It’s understandable; their safety comes first.”

Westerbeke said she’s hoping to fill the vacancies by asking those who will be working to take more than one shift, reaching out to former poll workers who may be laid off from their jobs or by calling in city employees who are working from home or not working their normal jobs.

Belgium Village Clerk Julie Lesar said four of her 10 poll workers “don’t feel comfortable” working on election day.

“Our staff will be very tight,” she acknowledged.

Lesar said she’s hoping she can recruit some college students on break to perhaps fill the gap. Any new hires — poll workers are paid — must complete a two-hour video training course, she noted.

Town of Saukville Clerk Raquel Engelke recruited college students to help her as well and currently has a full complement of election inspectors.

“Thankfully, all the members of the Town Board have also offered to step in and work the polls if that becomes necessary,” she said.

Engelke also emphasized that ballots cannot be taken home by voters for themselves or family members and that absentee ballots cannot be issued without a valid photo ID.

While fears stemming from the coronavirus outbreak likely will dampen overall voter turnout, the number of people requesting absentee ballots has skyrocketed.

In Port Washington, Westerbeke said absentee ballot requests are “flooding in. We’re processing hundreds upon hundreds each day.”

Total absentee requests numbered 1,581 by the end of Monday, she said, compared to about 800 absentee and early-voting ballots in the spring 2016 election, the last time there was a spring presidential primary.

“Plus, we still have a week and a half to go” before April 7, she said.

Early voting in Port Washington just started Monday.

As of Tuesday, the number of absentee ballots issued statewide totaled 554,116 eclipsing the 249,503 issued in spring 2016, the state Elections Commission reported.

The commission said it also has ordered the printing of 600,000 more absentee envelopes to meet the demand.

In the Village of Saukville, where no poll workers have canceled, 409 absentee ballots had been issued as of Wednesday morning, with 63 of those being in-person, Village Clerk Mary Kay Baumann said. 

  “For comparison, for this same election four years ago, I issued 168 absentee ballots total between mailed and in-person,” she said.

Belgium Clerk Lesar said the total of absentee ballots mailed out and the votes already cast total 241, about 17% of the village’s 1,400 registered voters. 

“Typically, 75 would be a high number for a spring election,” she said.

Lesar said her office door is locked but she or a member of her staff are providing drive-up voting service and will bring ballots out to voters’ cars.

Engelke said she has “had a very steady stream of in-person absentee voters as well as absentee requests for mailed ballots.”

By Tuesday afternoon, she said about 15% of the total town electorate has either voted in person or requested a mailed ballot.

“I get multiple calls a day regarding the procedure for procuring a ballot by mail or in person voting,” she said, “so there is lots of interest in exercising the right to vote as safely as possible.

“This is by far the most absentee ballots or in-person absentee votes for any election in my experience,” she said.

Westerbeke said there’s still time for things to change, including postponing the election.

“I would suggest the public stay informed on what the governor’s decisions are going to be that could affect where we go from here,” she said. “This is unprecedented. There’s a lot in play every day that we have to adjust to.”

With a lot of absentee ballots to process and potentially a decreased number of poll workers, Westerbeke said it’s more likely that the time to count ballots will be extended rather than the election itself be pushed back.

Moving the election back affects the terms of elected officials and other elections down the line, including a primary in August for which ballots will be mailed in June.

“We have a statutory calendar that we have to follow. Any change to that has to be carefully considered,” she said. 

The deadline to have an absentee ballot to be mailed is Thursday, April 2. To be counted, the ballot must be received at the voter’s  municpal clerk’s office or polling place by 8 p.m. on election day.

Westerbeke said hours for absentee voting at City Hall in Port next week will be 1 to 4 p.m. on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and 9 a.m. to noon on Tuesday and Thursday.



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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
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