Steven Walters
The State of Politics

Many Heroes Amid Election Chaos

The most decentralized election system in America struggled but showed heroism.

By - Apr 13th, 2020 12:20 pm
Voters at Washington High School. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Voters at Washington High School. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

With apologies to Charles Dickens, it was the best of times and worst of times for a spring election. Certainly Tuesday’s election brought out the heroism and hardiness of many Wisconsin voters, local and state election administrators, and up to 2,500 National Guard members.

Wisconsin has the most decentralized election system in the nation: 1,850 city, village and town clerks set up, administer and maintain about 3,000 polling places for their neighbors to vote. Local clerks also send out and count absentee ballots.

Those 1,850 clerks recruit, approve and train poll workers, compile vote totals and report those totals to the 72 county clerks.

All three branches of government loom over those local officials:

*Governors and legislators write election laws.

*Judges — in Madison and Washington, D.C. — interpret those laws.

*And a six-member Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC) – three Republican and three Democratic appointees – oversees it all, advises local clerks, compiles the statewide list of voters and trains chief inspectors for local polling places.

The COVID-19 pandemic storm sickening and killing those around us bent — badly — Wisconsin’s election system Tuesday. But it did not break or destroy it.

“We all learned a lot,” Meagan Wolfe, WEC administrator who works for the commission, which deadlocked 3-3 repeatedly in the weeks leading up to the election, told reporters last week.

How Wisconsin’s election system was badly bent:

Hundreds of Oshkosh and Appleton absentee ballots were discovered in U.S. Postal Service bins. Milwaukee’s decision to cut its polling places from 180 to 5 hurt African-American voters. Some 15,000 voters in Milwaukee and unknown number across the state didn’t get mailed their ballots in time to vote by mail. No one knows how many absentee ballots cast without witnesses won’t be counted, even though not having a witness was legal at the time.

But through it all, including Friday and Monday calls by Gov. Tony Evers to postpone the April 7 election, you hardy Wisconsin voters hung in there. Congrats.

Almost 1.3 million of you — a record — heeded advice to request an absentee ballot, so you didn’t have to vote in person.

But hundreds of thousands of you found new polling sites, even if they weren’t your usual neighborhood sites, and went to the polls Tuesday. You wore face masks. You stood — sometimes for hours —  six feet from those ahead and behind you. You got squirted with hand sanitizer. You showed your photo ID to someone on the other side of a plexiglass barrier. Some of you got your temperatures checked before voting.

One masked Rock County resident, waiting in his car for his turn at curbside voting, was asked by a WISC-TV reporter what it would take to keep him from in-person voting. “Dying,” he answered.

Those 1,850 local election officials were “amazingly resourceful” with innovations to make Tuesday’s election work, Wolfe said.

When U.S. District Court Judge William Conley refused to delay the election, he had this high praise: “WEC’s Administrator Meagan Wolfe has been expressly charged with the near impossible task of accomplishing a viable and safe election through a combination of processing an unprecedented number of absentee ballots and an in-person election.

“If there is a hero to this story, it is the administrator, her staff and municipal workers, all of whom continue to improvise election practices.”

Time now to salute the up to 2,500 Wisconsin National Guard members who were activated — but told to not wear their uniforms — and available as poll workers. The weekend before the election, Wolfe’s staff shared a list of villages, cities and towns that didn’t have enough volunteers to staff their polling places. Guard officers came up with a plan: Train Guard members in those areas as poll workers.

Quickly, WEC staffers created training videos that were shown to Guard members hours before polls opened.

So, if you’re thankful Wisconsin pulled off an election last week, thank a Guard member.

Let’s revisit the opening words of that literary masterpiece, Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. See any parallels between the mood he set and Wisconsin’s historical April 7 election?:

‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Contact him at

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2 thoughts on “The State of Politics: Many Heroes Amid Election Chaos”

  1. TransitRider says:

    Before we pat ourselves on the back, let’s wait a week or two to see if this debacle triggered a spike in infections.

  2. TransitRider says:

    And lo and behold, there WAS an uptick in infections linked to the election.

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