MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Only about 180 poll workers out of roughly 30,000 are still needed to staff polling places in battleground Wisconsin, despite surging cases of the coronavirus in the key battleground state, the Wisconsin Elections Commission reported Thursday.
The shortages were reported in 51 municipalities, up from just 13 the day before. The number will be in flux up until Election Day, but the small number of workers needed shows that election officials have done well to be properly staffed, said Wisconsin’s chief elections official, Meagan Wolfe.
The lack of a poll worker shortage is particularly good news given that Wisconsin is a hot spot for COVID-19. On Thursday, the state broke its single-day record for new cases. Earlier this week, it broke its single-day records for deaths and hospitalizations, as well. A field hospital near Milwauke was opened Wednesday to handle an overflow of patients but had yet to admit anyone as of Thursday afternoon.
“We still need to remain vigilant,” Wolfe said. “In the grand scheme of things I think it’s a small number and we’ve come a long way.”
Gov. Tony Evers said he plans to activate the Wisconsin National Guard to plug any gaps, just as was done at elections earlier this year in April and August. The state was short 700 poll workers in August.
“The Guard will play a role as much as they are needed,” Evers said.
The largest shortfalls are in Green Bay, where 30 workers were needed, and in Menomonie, in the western part of the state near Minnesota, where they were 15 short.
Watertown City Clerk Elissa Friedl said Thursday that she had just asked the elections commission to remove her city from the list because she was confident all 100 people needed to work the polls on Election Day would be available. Even if people back out close to the election, Friedl said she has city employees at the ready to fill vacancies. Watertown has about 24,000 residents and is located midway between Madison and Milwaukee.
Unlike the April election, when a shortage of poll workers led Milwaukee to close more than 100 polling places, there are no widespread gaps at this point headed into November, said Wisconsin Elections Commission spokesman Reid Magney.
“Clerks are doing a good job of recruiting and Wisconsin citizens are stepping up in response to either calls to action or problems that occurred in April,” Magney said.
In April, just five of Milwaukee’s polling places were open, leading to long lines and concerns about a spike in COVID-19 cases. But in August, it had nearly 170 and in November there will be 173, Magney said. Statewide there will be 2,408 polling places, compared with 2,578 in 2016, he said.
Some clerks had to consolidate polling places because ones used previously, including those in nursing homes or senior centers, can’t be used due to COVID-19 concerns, Magney said. Clerks in many places are opting to use larger facilities such as gymnasiums, where it’s easier for voters to cast ballots without being in close contact with others, he said.
Election officials, advocacy groups and others in Wisconsin and across the country have been recruiting poll workers more aggressively this year because older volunteers have been backing out due to concerns over the coronavirus. Younger people, such as 26-year-old Karli Tatum of Milwaukee, have been a target because they are less vulnerable to the coronavirus.
“I want to be able to do my part the way that I can,” Tatum said. “I do feel like I’ll be safe. There’s always a slight chance. I mean, even when I go to the grocery store, I feel like there’s a slight chance.”
Poll workers in Wisconsin can only volunteer at sites in the counties where they live. A federal lawsuit brought by Democrats, voting rights advocacy groups and others sought to allow people to volunteer at counties outside of where they live. A lower court judge granted that request, but the decision was put on hold and now the U.S. Supreme Court is weighing whether to take the case.
A record-high number of Wisconsin voters are also casting ballots absentee, which election officials say should cut down on lines on Election Day as well. As of Thursday, more than 785,000 voters had returned absentee ballots. That is more than 26% of the total number who voted in the 2016 presidential election.