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Local clerks see higher than expected voter turnout

Final results won’t be known until Monday

April 17, 2020 by Jamie Taylor

In interviews last week, several local clerks serving at the county, city and town levels predicted most of the votes cast in Tuesday’s races would be done via absentee ballot and the in-person at the poll voters would be few. On Tuesday, many of them reported being surprised by the large number of people putting on masks and coming to the polls in spite of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

And it would have been perfectly understandable if some people woke up Tuesday morning unsure if the spring primary election was still being conducted. An 11th hour executive order Monday by Governor Tony Evers putting Tuesday’s election on hold was met by an 11 1/2 hour reversal by the Wisconsin Supreme Court, along with a change in the cutoff for absentee ballots, which was later affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court on 5-4 vote.

In between the issuance of the order and the ruling overturning it, the Wisconsin Election Commission was advising clerks Monday to prepare to hold the election, according to Rhinelander city clerk Val Foley.

For Rhinelander, the closure of the two county buildings normally housing the polling places necessitated the election being moved to the high school. When contacted Tuesday afternoon, Foley said the election was actually running quite well in the one location.

“That’s a perfect location,” Foley said. “I wish it were one we could use always, but they won’t let us in there when there are kids.”

Foley said the absentee ballots received or turned in at the polls were run through the machines as voter traffic allowed. She said how they are entered into the poll books differs from an in-person vote so a final tally of both could be eventually released. 

The results of the races won’t be released until April 13, as part of a lower court ruling both supreme courts let stand. 

“And then we won’t know because we can’t do counts tonight,” Foley said. “All we have to let her (Oneida County clerk Tracy Hartman) know is how many votes were cast. And that’s it.”

Foley said she hoped counting the votes in each race after 4 p.m. Monday will be done before the City Council meeting scheduled for 6 p.m. that night.

Wednesday morning she said poll workers were surprised when Pizza Ranch showed up near poll close at 8 p.m.

“Nobody ordered it, they (Pizza Ranch) just delivered it,” Foley said. “Between processing absentee ballots and in person voters, nobody had time for dinner, some didn’t even get lunch. So when they came in with those pizzas, it was very appreciated.”

‘Spurts’ of voters

Many area towns went to great effort to protect both poll workers and voters, including fabricating frames with either plastic sheeting or plexiglass as a shield. Masks were made available for all poll workers.

Town of Woodruff clerk Julie Huotari said the work their town crew did in making the shields really boasted the morale of the poll workers.

“The plexiglass barriers are incredible, but you can’t hear as well through it, but it hasn’t been a real problem,” Huotari said. “It’s better that people are talking louder to each other rather than spitting on them.”

As of mid-afternoon, Huotari said Woodruff was not seeing the surge of in-person voters some of the other towns were reporting. 

“We have spurts,” Huotari said. “There’ll be times the poll workers are reading books and going around sanitizing, finding other things to do, then all of a sudden it’s like everyone comes at once.”

She added about 40% of the voters coming in were wearing masks.

Arbor Vitae clerk Mary Reuland also reported there hadn’t been a rush of in-person voters at her location either, as of midday.

“It’s really very low,” Reuland said. “We have 2,200 voters and we’ve checked in almost 600 absentee voters and we have only had 300 in person.”

She said there were 300 more absentee ballots to be processed at the time she was contacted. Reuland said in the February election, 150 absentee votes were cast.

The town of Minocqua had a system set up in the weeks leading up to the election in which voters could contact the town office and schedule a time to come in at vote on a Monday, Wednesday or Friday between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.

The voter was met in the lobby of the town hall by town clerk Roben Haggart or town secretary Lynn Wildes and the voting procedure would take place as normal, with a single “voting stall” set up.

Haggart said she saw more in person voters Tuesday than she expected.

“It seems to me that it’s a lot of older people who may not be computer-savvy,” she said. “Because a lot of people went online, I have over 1,000 absentees, and those are just the people who went online and requested it and we mailed them a ballot.”

Haggart said some voters may have been intimidated by going the online route to getting a ballot.

“The whole having to upload your I.D. might have been too tricky for some folks,” she said. “So they’re here.”

Haggart told The Lakeland Times Wednesday while National Guard personnel were available to the town if needed, the overall process in Minocqua, which allowed two people at a time into the polling area at the Minocqua town hall,  was “very steady and very smooth.”

“My brother-in-law is in the Guard and he was on stand-by if we needed him, which wasn’t the case,” Haggart said. “We all managed and we got it done.” 

She said her poll working staff for the day included Wildes and town chairman Mark Hartzheim. 

“People were actually very nice when they came in,” Haggart said. “They were very appreciative of our sanitizing capabilities.”

Kim Gauthier, Town of Newbold clerk, also noted the stream of people seeking to cast their ballot directly was much higher then she had predicted last week.

“It’s been busy and steady all day,” Gauthier said at about 3 p.m. “Typically our after work and supper times are really busy.”

She said all the changes and last minute twists have “been a rollercoaster” that won’t be over until the votes are counted Monday. The votes will be kept in a locked and sealed transfer bag until the absentee ballots postmarked April 7 that arrive before 4 p.m. Monday are processed. Then all of ballots will be scanned again to register the vote totals per race.

“My plan is to process all of ours Monday night, just get it done,” Gauthier said. “Once that 4 o’clock deadline passes, we’ll start processing the ballots. Because everyone is going to be wanting the results.”

She said she was surprised by the number of people coming in with masks on. Gauthier said a poll worker sewed a few masks that were available for voters, and the state sent a bag of 10 masks. But there were few takers.

Tracy Hartman is both the Oneida County Clerk and town clerk for the Town of Crescent and she said in-person voter turnout had “been steady” in Crescent.

“It’s been pretty consistent with people coming in, we’re at about 200-210 come in person today,” Hartman said at about 2:30 p.m. adding that 300 was a normal turnout.

Like the rest of the clerks interviewed, Hartman said that voters have been mindful of social distancing and a majority wore masks. People coming to vote were greeted with a sanitizer sprayed on their hands, and all the poll workers didn’t seem distressed by the cloud hanging over them.

Hartman said six members of the Wisconsin National Guard were made available to fill in for poll workers, with four of them ending up at Rhinelander high school.

Vilas County clerk Dave Alleman on Wednesday said in accordance with the lower court’s ruling, he won’t be releasing any county election results or voter turnout information until after 4 p.m. on Monday, April 13. 

Jamie Taylor may be reached via email at [email protected] Lakeland Times news director Brian Jopek contributed to the article. He may be reached via email at [email protected].

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