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May 26, 2020

4/3/2020 7:27:00 AM
Clerks seeing avalanche of absentee ballot requests
Most hoping for fewer election day voters due to COVID-19
Jamie Taylor
River News Reporter

City and township clerks throughout Oneida County are being deluged with requests for both absentee ballots and in-person absentee voting as the COVID-19 pandemic, and related restrictions, have voters looking to avoid going to the polls April 7.

Tracy Hartman is both the Oneida County Clerk and town clerk for the Town of Crescent, offering her a unique perspective on this most unusual election.

At the county end of the election process, the increase in absentee ballots won't add greatly to the problem, unless the governor changes the due date for the ballots to be back to town and city clerks, she said.

"It really isn't having a huge impact, but we do the WisVote for 15 of the towns, so we're seeing an increase in the amount that we have to enter into the system," Hartman said of the statewide election management system.

She doesn't expect the election night process of gathering the results will be delayed too much on April 7.

"I'm not anticipating it having a huge impact. Maybe some of the towns will be calling in their results a little bit later if it takes them longer to process those absentee ballots," Hartman said. "But I'm hoping we don't see a big impact on us. What will impact us is if the state legislature changes some of the timelines on when absentee ballots can arrive."

Under current law, absentee ballots must be in the hands of your clerk by election day. If that is extended to Friday, with an April 7 postmark, then the process of declaring the election results "official" will change.

Beyond that, Hartman doesn't think Madison will change the hours the polls are open because it's too late for that change.

At the Town of Crescent level, the request for absentee ballots has been heavy and steady.

"I think every clerk in Oneida County would say yes, they're driving us crazy," Hartman said, referring to the requests. "We're definitely seeing a huge increase in them in Crescent. I think our results should be done about the same time, I think we're going to see a decrease in our in-person voting, so the workers should be able to deal with these absentees during the day."

Polling locations throughout the county should be open from seven in the morning to eight at night, Hartman added.

When Rhinelander clerk Val Foley was asked if she is seeing an increase in the number of requests for absentee ballots, she replied "Oh my goodness, yes."

"I was here until 12:30 last night again trying to get them all processed," Foley said. "I have election workers trying to put everything together to get these out in the mail today (Tuesday). I had to call in the troops, it's awful."

She said the city received 200 requests on Monday alone and the process of getting the ballot ready to send out is labor intensive in itself. It involves folding a ballot to fit in a mailer, along with a self-addressed, stamped envelope and getting them to the post office.

"It's not like an easy task," Foley said.

In addition, people can sign up for a 15-minute appointment on weekdays between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. to cast an absentee ballot in Foley's office.

"And those usually book up early in the day," she said. "And sometimes there's two that come in at a time, husbands and wives, those type of thing. I have almost 1,000 of them right now. My usual amount of absentee ballots is 230 to 300 on a good election. Even presidential (elections) doesn't rival; it's all I can do, I can't keep up."

City voting locations were moved to the Rhinelander High School gymnasium because the usual sites at the sheriff's department and senior center were ordered closed due to the pandemic.

"We couldn't go into the county buildings so I made that call," Foley said. "And I said where can we go that we would have a large enough area where people could socially distance?"

Fortunately, the School District of Rhinelander stepped up with the use of the gym, she said.

"We can monitor at the door and in the Commons, how many can actually get in because I'm trying to keep it down to the 10," Foley said.

Due to the pandemic, she doesn't anticipate many in-person voters Tuesday.

"Typically, what is the election turnout, 25 percent? And I would say we have between 4,000 and 5,000 voters and people can still absentee vote in-person until Thursday (April 2), we could easily hit 25 percent by then," Foley said. "Just in absentee."

Minocqua town clerk Roben Haggart said her office is also receiving an unusually high number of requests for absentee ballots, with 1,177 ballot requests as of Tuesday afternoon. The normal number of requests for a spring presidential primary is between 300 and 500, she added. Haggart said the normal turnout for a April presidential primary election is between 25 and 30 percent or about 1,200 voters.

In-person absentee balloting has been by appointment only, with the process taking place downstairs from her office.

"We maybe get a dozen a day," Haggart said.

She said she isn't expecting a lot of persons to show up to vote in person Tuesday.

"A lot of people have called to see if we would be open," Haggart said. "We'll have some measures in place to protect the poll workers the best that we can."

Haggart also said the possibility of extending the window for mailed-in absentee ballots being counted also is adding an element of uncertainty to the election.

Kim Gauthier of the Town of Newbold said absentee ballot "are my favorite two words right now."

"As of yesterday (Monday) I was up to 225," Gauthier said. "The most I've ever issued in a presidential primary is about 250. I'm used to procedures, but the massive amount of them is quite amazing, I've had to bring on some staff."

Gauthier was also looking to see if Madison changes the procedure as far as the cut off for accepting absentee ballots.

"If they do that, we'll have to have a separate board of canvass just for those votes that come in," Gauthier said.

Gauthier said she has all kinds of safety measures planned and a local business helped solve one problem she was facing.

"We're getting hand-washing stations at both of our polling places," Gauthier said. "A-1 Septic is donating them to the town for the election. Which I was ecstatic about because it came at a time that I didn't think I was going to get any hand sanitizer. So I'm really excited about that."

Arbor Vitae clerk Mary Reuland reported that trying to get the avalanche of requests means "we work on them steady."

"And we are seeing in-person absentee voting three hours a day four days this week," Reuland said. "We did 43 of them today in the three hours, and we're pumping them out as quick as we're getting them (requests) in."

As of Tuesday afternoon, the election workers were just processing Sunday's online requests for ballots, she added.

"So we're two days behind and I haven't entered everything into WisVote yet, but I think we were at 600 last night when I left," Reuland said.

She said the town has 2,200 voters, and the projection is for an 80 percent turnout for this election, with the overwhelming majority absentee ballots. Like the other clerks contacted, Reuland doesn't anticipate the election day turnout to be particularly heavy.

"I think, maybe, we'll get a third of our voters that will come in person," Reuland said.

She said the biggest problem is the lack of supplies for the large number of absentee ballots.

"Every vote has to be secured in a secrecy envelope, and we ran out of those on Thursday at 1 p.m. last week," Reuland said. "The state was mass producing them and we just got our delivery Friday afternoon around 3:30. And they gave us 1,000 more envelopes."

"We're hoping this does the job," she added.

Town of Woodruff clerk Julie Huotari doesn't have much experience with elections in general, having been elected just last year, and is getting a crash course this April. For the February election, a total of 10 people took advantage of in person absentee voting "and the numbers are way, way up" for April, she noted.

"Every spring election we average between 500 and 600 voters, and that includes absentee," Huotari said. "Right now, as of finishing up mailing yesterday, I am at 385. And I currently have at least 20 on my desk and another five or so in my email. So I'm well over 400."

At this rate, absentee ballots alone will account for the usual voter turnout, she said. She has been taking in- person absentee voters between 10 a.m. and noon, with 5 or 6 voters on average taking advantage of that option.

"I know some places have just shut down completely or are doing curbside voting or by appointment," Huotari said.

She said that she expects a lower turnout at the polls Tuesday, but steps are in place to protect the voters who do show up as well as the poll workers.

"I'm thankful for that because that means fewer people in the polling place," Huotari said. "We have gone to great lengths to keep the public and the poll workers protected. Our road crew built this huge 4x8-foot Plexiglas barrier for the election tables. We've had people dropping off masks - I don't know how effective they will be - but maybe they will comfort some people. I have rubber gloves, I have disinfectants, I have hand sanitizing stations, a plan for sanitizing pens and markers if they're used, even though I have an abundance."

She said the precautions extend to markings on the floor to help with the 6 foot social distancing if there is a line.

Her expectation is the people who don't vote absentee will probably not leave their houses on April 7.

She said all of the material purchased to keep the poll workers and voters safe were not in her 2020 budget, and she has no idea how much over budget her office is sitting at this point.

"I'm supposed to be making an Excel spreadsheet, but I just don't have time for it right now. All I can focus on right now is these absentees," Huotari admitted. "But when we're done, I'm going to take all of the receipts and all of our billings and all of our accounts payables and find out how much extra I spent because there has been word there may be some federal funding to help us recover from this. And I can't give you a number because I have no idea."

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