Tuesday, March 31, 2020 - 12:55pm

Madison is Asking a Federal Court to Postpone the Election, Consider Mail-in Ballot

This statement from Mayor Rhodes-Conway is also published as her official blog

Every state with an election scheduled in the middle of their COVID-19 outbreak has decided to postpone the election – every state except Wisconsin – making our state a national outlier and not in a good way.

Last Friday, Governor Evers asked for absentee ballots be sent to all voters. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald called the idea a “complete fantasy.” But it is clearly the right way to go.

The scientists and specialists at the UW Applied Population Lab share my concern that an in-person election on April 7th creates a significant risk to our efforts to slow the spread.

“Given the speed of COVID-19’s spread within Madison, Dane County, and the State of Wisconsin at this time, we feel strongly that asking voters to attend in-person voting as usual presents an unreasonable risk to individual voters, poll workers, and the general public.” In addition, “polling places are inherently high-contact settings which involve many individuals coming into close contact and touching the same objects over the course of a day.”

Due to these urgent concerns, the City of Madison filed a brief in federal court asking the court to postpone the election for at least three weeks, allow all elected officials to remain in office until their successors are elected, and consider ordering a full mail-in ballot election. The issue is headed to federal court this week with two cases consolidated before Judge William M. Conley, United States District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin.

With all the evidence in front of me, I can only conclude that the best way – and perhaps the only way – to hold a fair and safe election is to postpone it.

Election Day Safety:
In this period of uncertainty, ensuring fair, accessible, and safe elections on April 7th has been one of my top priorities for many weeks now. In an astonishing feat the City Clerk has processed some 70,000 absentee ballots.

At the same time, City staff have been working hard to prepare for an in-person election and to keep it safe. The plans they’ve created to keep poll workers and voters safe on Election Day are impressive. Staff are searching for and even fabricating plastic face shields and Plexiglas barriers to protect both poll workers and voters from interfacing directly with each other. They’re planning for as much curbside voting as possible, and supplying each polling station with hand sanitizer, disinfectant spray, and gloves. On Election Day they’ll work to maintain at least 6 feet between poll workers and voters.

And yet challenges remain. We need 1,500 poll workers to manage the voting process on April 7th. To date, more than 1,000 volunteer poll workers have cancelled. And I can understand why – many are seniors who we’ve stressed should stay home. We’re working to recruit new volunteers, but admittedly must target folks in their 20s, 30s, and 40s – the age bracket with the highest rates of positive tests for COVID-19. In addition, we’ve received cancellations from several polling locations. We’re down to 66 polling locations, from an original 92. Combining multiple wards into a single location is our only solution at this point, but this will create larger gatherings and challenge our social distancing goals.
You can stay updated on polling place changes here.

Absentee Fairness and Access:
Sending each voter a mail-in ballot is the best option to help slow the spread of COVID-19. But I believe a fair and accessible all-absentee election is impossible to achieve by April 7th. The logistics of managing an all-absentee process require more time to put in place – and further strain a Clerk’s Office workforce that has already been under immense pressure and is beyond exhaustion.

The Clerk’s Office expected and planned for issuing 6,000-8,000 absentee ballot requests this spring. By now, they have sent out 70,000. They’ve struggled to find enough ballot envelopes and enough mailing labels, and they’ve worked 90-110 hour work weeks to manage the volume of requests, losing sleep and straining their own immune systems in the process. Producing tens of thousands more absentee ballots on the current schedule is not possible.

I also question whether an all-absentee election can be fair under our current rules and timeframe. The Madison Clerk’s Office takes hundreds of phone calls a day from voters who are struggling to navigate the online system or who live alone and cannot get a witness to sign their ballot.

An all-absentee election, while safer, comes with its own set of logistical and accessibility issues that cannot be solved without more time and resources. Shifting the method of voting without shifting the date does not solve our problems.

With all of these factors in mind, I can only come to one conclusion: we must postpone the April 7th election to keep everybody safe and to keep our elections fair.

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