A volunteer poll worker shares her story from the front lines of the dangerous election in Wisconsin — where voters and poll workers are now coming down with COVID-19. To protect public health and democracy, the author calls on elected officials to expand absentee voting by mail, ensure polling-place safety, and improve communication to voters.
When I signed up in February to be a volunteer poll worker for the Wisconsin election on April 7 in Madison, I could not have imagined the rollercoaster ride I was getting on. I knew that Wisconsin had seen relentless efforts to suppress the votes in Black and low-income communities, including a recent purge of more than 200,000 voters from the rolls. As a volunteer who canvassed for Planned Parenthood for the midterm in 2018 and the primary election in 2020, I wanted to be on the front lines of this critically important election as a poll worker, which I had never done before.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States, including Wisconsin, I wondered how it would affect voting. I first heard concerns about COVID-19 affecting the April election through news reports that poll workers had backed out of their shifts for fear of exposure to the virus. On March 23, I received an email from Madison’s voting center that “over 525 poll workers have said they cannot work on April 7. This is nearly a quarter of all invited workers. Share the online sign-up widely.”
On April 3, when the severity of COVID-19 and the imminent public health risks became apparent, Gov. Tony Evers (D) proposed holding an all-mail election and pushing the deadline for receipt of absentee ballots until May. He called a special session of the Wisconsin state legislature to consider the plan, but Republican lawmakers rejected his proposal.
On the morning of April 6 — the day before the election — Gov. Evers issued an emergency order delaying the election to June 9. Within hours, however, a majority of justices on the Wisconsin Supreme Court had ruled to block his order. State politicians also appealed the extension of a deadline for receiving absentee ballots all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court — and on the night before the election, the court ruled that all ballots had to be delivered or postmarked by April 7, even if the voters who applied for them had not received them by then.
By the morning of April 7, the number of polling centers in Madison had dropped from 92 to 66. Other major Wisconsin cities faced even greater reductions: Milwaukee had only five of its 180 polling sites open, and Green Bay could only open two of its 31 sites. This drastically lengthened lines at polling places, forcing voters to wait for hours — and to further risk exposure to COVID-19. Black and Latinx voters, and voters with low incomes, were most affected — some of the very same people at highest risk of dying or hospitalization because of COVID-19.
What was at stake in this election? A decisive seat in the Wisconsin Supreme Court held by incumbent Justice Daniel Kelly — an appointee of former Gov. Scott Walker (R). Kelly was backed by anti-abortion groups and even President Trump himself, who used Twitter the day before the election to urge voters to support Kelly.
I knew that reduced access to the polls would result in fewer people — especially people in urban areas, and those with low incomes — being able to vote. Even though I worried about the health risks, I knew I couldn’t let down people who were risking their health and safety to show up to vote.
After many emails telling me the election might be off or on, and warnings about precautions that poll workers would need to take, I found out on April 6 at 6 p.m. that the election would happen the next day. And so I spent April 7 helping Wisconsinites who were being forced to risk their health in order to exercise their right to vote.
My assigned polling place at a senior center hosted voting for two combined wards, presumably merged due to the lack of election officials. I wore a mask my friend sewed for me. Not everyone did.
I heard one poll worker ask another, “Why did you decide not to wear a mask? Did you not want to, or could you not find one?” His answer: “I could not find one anywhere.” As I offered him one of the extra masks that my friend had made for me that morning, his face lit up as he graciously said, “Of course I want it!”
The many people who came to vote in person were asked to line up six feet apart. By the time they reached my station to register with me, however, they were standing closer to one another. About half of the individuals who walked in were wearing something to cover their faces — many wrapped scarves over their mouths. I could see fear and concern instilled in voters’ eyes as they walked into the room, which held more than ten people. Everybody seemed anxious to leave the polling place as soon as they could.
As I gestured to each that they must fill out the registration form, they scribbled, looking anxious as I reviewed it and asked for proof of residence. Many voters appeared concerned about the need to come close enough to me to show me their proof of residence, while touching a pen that was in someone else’s hand minutes before.
I left the polling place at 11:30 p.m. that night, feeling that I had done all that I could as a volunteer. While I have not worked as an election official before, I have voted in Wisconsin before — and there was clearly something different in the air at this election.
Ultimately, Justice Daniel Kelly lost the Wisconsin Supreme Court seat. While this is good news for my state and the future of reproductive health care, not all the news was good: The voter turnout level was only 31%, compared to the 49% seen in the 2016 presidential primary.
I still feel concern about how cynical politics were placed ahead of the health of citizens. That makes me worry for voters in other upcoming elections across the United States, including the election in November. Politicians need to learn from what happened in Wisconsin and fight to ensure voters never need to risk their lives to exercise their civic duty. We need our elected officials to consider allowing more Americans to vote by mail, ensuring polling places are safe for volunteers and voters alike, and educate voters about our options.
Don't let what happened in Wisconsin happen across the country in November — our elections depend on it.
Take Action to Ensure People Can Vote Without Jeopardizing Their Health
It’s time to demand that our U.S. Senators include more funding for safe and secure elections in the next stimulus package. This includes:
An extended early in-person voting period,
Absentee voting-by-mail that doesn’t require an excuse,
Expanded voter registration options,
Prohibition of polling place adjustments that disproportionately impact vulnerable populations, and