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Madison has 66 polling sites on Election Day, Milwaukee has five. What's the deal?

Madison has 66 polling sites on Election Day, Milwaukee has five. What's the deal?

WI Primary Election 040720 02-04072020130955

Poll workers wait Tuesday morning for curbside voters to pull up in front of the Madison Municipal Building.

Lines are snaking across parking lots and around blocks as dozens of Wisconsin voters, trying to stand six feet apart, wait more than an hour in some cases to cast their ballots amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. 

While that’s the Election Day reality in a couple of the state’s biggest cities, the story is different in Madison, where 66 of its normal 92 polling sites are open. 

Around Madison, there have seemingly been few, if any, voters spotted waiting outside polling places across a city where the local clerk’s office reported it issued 87,237 absentee ballots to voters who requested them. 

Madison, with more than 250,000 residents, has only seen a 28% drop in the number of its polling locations — a small difference when compared to three of the state’s other large cities that have seen their available locations halved, at the very least. 

In Milwaukee, just five of the city’s usual 180 sites are open. In Green Bay, there are only two rather than the typical 31, and in Kenosha there are 10, down from 22.

From Milwaukee (population 600,000) and Green Bay (population 105,000), reporters have documented long lines and wait times as city officials were forced to consolidate sites or find brand new ones amid poll worker shortages.

But locally, Madison City Clerk Maribeth Witzel-Behl credited the city’s commitment to staffing more polling locations than other cities “because anything more than a 15-minute wait in line is unacceptable by our standards.”

Therefore, she said, the city's Emergency Operations Center and Planning staff pushed to fill 3,032 shifts across Madison, a number later reduced to 1,712 shifts because of the pandemic and consolidated polling locations. 

“The city's ongoing commitment to minimize the amount of time voters must wait in line for any election helped make us resilient,” she wrote in an email. 

5/180 in Milwaukee

Milwaukee officials have sounded the alarm in recent days that their polling sites would be heavily reduced because of a shortage of 1,000 poll workers. 

While local leaders have said there could be between 10 and 12 polling locations, the city managed to have just five available come Tuesday. 

Milwaukee Election Commission executive director Neil Albrecht told reporters late Tuesday morning most sites were reporting a wait time of between one-and-a-half and two-and-a-half hours. 

The sites are staffed by between 80 and 100 election workers each, he said, with those on site including around 170 total National Guard members, Milwaukee police officers and health department officials. 

Albrecht acknowledged that it could have been possible to perhaps open additional sites if city staff had known how many National Guard members would be available before Monday afternoon, a total he said could have been anywhere from 20 to the 250 the city asked for. 

“Had we had that information sooner, I absolutely think it could have influenced the number of voting centers,” he said. "The timing really did not allow us to maximize their presence and think about the possibility of opening more centers.” 

Green Bay and Kenosha 

In Green Bay, the city found a couple new polling locations to use — in high school gymnasiums — instead of its usual 31 sites.  

Celestine Jeffreys, chief of staff to Mayor Eric Genrich, said the move came after 15 locations pulled out, the city “lost a lot of poll workers” and officials began to seek out sites that would be better for current circumstances.  

“Some of those polling locations are good for non-pandemic circumstances but some of them are small with not a lot of space for people to congregate, so just in trying to consolidate polling locations we thought it’d be better to consolidate in areas — like high school gyms — that are bigger,” she said. “Bigger parking lots, bigger spaces for people to stand.” 

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Returning to the schools is a new move. Following 2016, the school district stopped allowing officials to hold elections in schools, she said, citing security concerns. Around 50 poll workers are staffing the two sites Tuesday. 

The city filed a lawsuit last month asking a federal judge to delay the contests and move the election entirely to mailed ballots. But the city was found to lack the legal grounds to sue. 

Meanwhile, officials in Green Bay and Milwaukee County on Monday also issued their own orders to delay the election after Gov. Tony Evers did the same via executive order at the state level. His order was overruled by the state Supreme Court, and both Green Bay and Milwaukee officials backed off their directives. 

Kenosha Clerk Debbie Salas said there are some 95 workers spread across the city’s 10 polling centers, down from the usual 22. 

That doesn’t include around 25 National Guard members and a police officer located at each site, she said. 

The drop in polling locations came as staff struggled to find poll workers and handled absentee balloting ahead of the election. 

“It was more of our staff managing the set-ups of polling locations because we were so busy with absentee ballots as well,” she said about the 10 existing sites.

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Briana Reilly covers state government and politics for the Cap Times. She joined the staff in 2019, after working at WisPolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter at @briana_reilly.

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