LANCASTER, Wis. — With the spring election less than two weeks away, southwest Wisconsin officials are scrambling to deal with a surge in interest in absentee voting.
Like many areas, the challenges are related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Meanwhile, officials in Iowa have more time to adjust but also are readying themselves for the potential impacts.
“The thought is people can just vote in the comfort and security of their own home, rather than venturing out and risking spreading the virus,” said Jenny Hillary, Dubuque County’s deputy commissioner of elections.
Voters will cast ballots in Wisconsin on April 7. Ballots will feature state races for justice of the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals judge, in addition to county and school district offices. The presidential preference primary also will be held.
But COVID-19 has prompted many people to seek to vote without heading to the polls. Nearly 130 new cases were reported Wednesday in Wisconsin. The state’s total now sits at 585.
“Absentee (voting) supplies are very difficult to get,” said Grant County Clerk Linda Gebhard on Tuesday. “... I’m down to my last half a box.”
Both Gebhard and Lafayette County (Wis.) Clerk Carla Jacobson said they usually rely on a printing service in Illinois, but that state’s shelter-in-place order shuttered nonessential businesses — including the printer.
Both clerks had to scramble to find a new source for envelopes for voting absentee.
Jacobson eventually found some through Morrisey Printing in Platteville and Darlington.
Co-owner Tom Morrisey explained that absentee ballots usually have to be mailed in envelopes with square flaps and tinted interiors. But with the state slightly loosening those rules, he was able to track some down.
“But the company we got them from were 20,000 back-ordered,” he said. “So, everybody’s looking for them.”
Jacobson said that, in part, is reassuring. Nearly 600 absentee ballot requests had been received as of Tuesday.
“There’s a shortage because so many people are voting absentee, which is great,” she said. “We have a lot of voters voting absentee, taking advantage of that. It is way up in Lafayette County.”
In Iowa, ahead of the more-distant June 2 primary election, officials are trying to promote absentee voting even more.
“We are including the absentee ballot request form in a mailer, like what we did for the recent combined city and school election,” Hillary said.
Delaware County is doing something similar, according to County Auditor Carla Becker.
But an increase in absentee ballots means an increase in staff time tabulating them.
“There are just so many,” Gebhard said. “There are only two people in our office. It takes the deputy clerk pretty much all day.”
Counties on both sides of the river have created special accounts for any additional costs incurred due to changes related to COVID-19, with the hope that they will be reimbursed by the federal government.
The Dubuque County Board of Supervisors approved an additional $50,000 toward the effort.
“We did not budget to send a mailing out to every registered voter and include an absentee request form,” Hillary said. “We’re thinking that if we’re not going to open up all of the locations, we might have some savings for poll workers, but it is a moving target.”
Polling locations and crews are other big pieces being considered right now.
Many polling places in a normal election year would be located inside schools, other government buildings or churches, most of which currently are closed to the public.
Also, finding poll workers might prove to be even more of a challenge than usual.
“A lot of our people who work the polls have a median age of 65 or older,” Hillary said, which puts them in the category most vulnerable to COVID-19.
In Wisconsin, Gov. Tony Evers pushed recruiting high school students home from school.
“We looked into it, but the timeline is so tight,” Gebhard said. “There’s liability issues and training, but that would have been a wonderful resource if we had that in existence.”
No matter what, though, some polling places will be open on election days. That means precautions.
“Our emergency director, Theresa Burgess, recommended we all wear the N95 face masks, every poll worker, and is trying to get those,” Jacobson said.
Multiple counties mentioned just getting ink pens or golf pencils to use on Election Day that then can be carried away by voters.
In Clayton County, Iowa, Auditor Jennifer Garms said her team hopes that noncontested races might dampen turnout.
“For the Republicans, for instance, if there’s not a contested race, some people would consider not going for the primary (and) just waiting for the general (election),” she said.