Behind masks and shields, election goes on

Local officials scramble to keep poll workers, voters safe during election marked by confusion and fear

POLL WORKERS AT Grand Avenue United Methodist Church in Port Washington, like those at many other voting places throughout the county, were separated from voters by a Plexiglas shield constructed by workers at the street department. Photo by Sam Arendt
Ozaukee Press staff

The coronavirus on Tuesday loomed large over an election fraught with confusion and fear that left local officials scrambling to keep poll workers and voters safe during the pandemic.

Polling places like Port Washington City Hall were almost like a ghost town, inhabited by poll workers wearing gloves and masks seated behind Plexiglas screens as they signed voters in.

Informational signs about the election were mounted next to information about the virus, asking people who have symptoms of the coronavirus not to enter.

Instead of the long lines of people often seen registering to vote or waiting to cast ballots, voters came in a steady stream of small groups throughout the day, social distancing as they stood in line.

After they cast their ballots, poll workers sanitized the booths.

A blue barrel stood near the entrance to City Hall, ready to receive absentee ballots.

And at the end of the night, there were no results to be had yet.

“This is one for the books,” Port Washington City Clerk Susan Westerbeke said. “No one’s seen an election like this before.

“This has been probably the most confusing election for the public because it’s changed so much. It’s all we can do to process the changes.”

Voters already uneasy about heading to the polls in the midst of a pandemic were bombarded with news Monday after the election was first suspended by Gov. Tony Evers, then reinstated by the State Supreme Court. 

Then the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling that only absentee ballots postmarked on or before April 7 and received by Monday, April 13, will be counted in the election, overturning a lower court ruling that absentee ballots could be accepted and counted through April 13 no matter when they were mailed.

The abrupt changes in the election on Monday left municipal clerks reeling as they tried to adjust and voters perplexed.

The election was already one for the books, Westerbeke said. 

Fears of contracting the coronavirus meant many voters either cast their ballots early or sought absentee ballots.

The City of Port Washington, which had 7,547 registered voters as of Monday, issued 3,336 absentee ballots. 

“We were sending out absentee ballots nonstop through Friday,” Westerbeke said. 

As of Tuesday afternoon, 2,770 ballots were returned, she said, leaving 566 outstanding.

A number of people called to say they never received their ballots, she said, adding that the city on Monday also received a returned ballot intended for the City of Sheboygan.

The city received so many requests for absentee ballots it ran out of its stock of ballot envelopes for both the April and August elections, Westerbeke said.

“We had to reorder the ballot envelopes a number of times,” she said. “We made our own envelopes at one point.

“And we’re not unique in this.”

Fears of the coronavirus kept all but about 20 of the city’s core group of 54 poll workers at home, forcing the city to consolidate two of its polling places.

And the corps of poll workers was joined this week by four members of the National Guard — three men and a woman who hail from Port, Fredonia and Belgium — who helped out on Monday and Tuesday.

“We would have been sunk without them,” Chief Election Inspector Mary Quentin said.

Westerbeke said the group had been trained as poll workers Sunday and helped set up the polls on Monday and then filled out the staffing on Tuesday.

“They are fantastic,” she said. “Very dedicated, bright and helpful.”

One, she added, is interested in becoming a poll worker.

Attendance at the polls Tuesday was slow but steady, Westerbeke said, adding she expects overall turnout to be more than 50%. During the last presidential primary in 2016, turnout in Port was 63%.

“Considering what’s going on with the global pandemic, that’s pretty good,” she said. “We have an active regular voter base here, so we usually have a pretty good turnout.”

City Administrator Mark Grams noted that this primary is a little different from the 2016 election.

“This presidential primary is for all intents and purposes over,” he said. “The last one, you had Democratic and Republican presidential races still going strong.”

Throughout the day Tuesday, poll workers entered the absentee ballots they had in the voting machines. When the polls closed at 8 p.m., workers audited the poll books, removed the ballots from the machines and reconciled the numbers with the poll books, then locked the ballots in containers and placed them and the machines in a locked room.

They will sit there until late Monday, when the votes will be tallied, Westerbeke said.


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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
(262) 284-3494


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