Absentee Requests Rise Amid Coronavirus Concerns

The covid-19 emergency has Republican and Democratic leaders asking for election rules to be changed. Here & Now's Zac Schultz reports on how the clerks are doing their best to make it all work.

By Zac Schultz | Here & Now

March 19, 2020 • South Central Region

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A city official prepares an absentee ballot in Madison.

A city official prepares an absentee ballot in Madison.

The Covid-19 pandemic has upended Wisconsin’s spring election the way no candidate ever could. President Donald Trump has been forced to cancel appearances, while Presidential candidates like Bernie Sanders have shifted to online rallies.

“We have to balance and simultaneously achieve the goals of keeping Wisconsin healthy and making sure we get out and vote for Jill for Justice,” said Ben Wikler, Chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin. 

“At the Democratic Party of Wisconsin we are undertaking an unprecedented, statewide field-organizing operation that will take place entirely online, reaching out to voters through phone calls, text messages and social media to make sure that they know how to request their absentee ballots,” he said. 

Absentee voting has been gaining in popularity in recent years but the number of people requesting absentee ballots by mail for this election has skyrocketed.

“Because of all of the virus stuff I thought might as well take advantage of how easy it is and I work downtown,” said a Madison absentee voter. 

Jim Verbick, deputy clerk for the City of Madison, said they have called in volunteers from other city agencies to process ballot requests at a rate of 360 an hour.

“We’re getting a lot of help from other city agencies. It’s kind of all hands on deck,” he said. 

Verbick said they have seen two big spikes in absentee by mail requests: one when the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a pandemic, and a second when Gov. Tony Evers banned gatherings of more than 10 people. 

“We were doing about 5,600 absentee applications sitting in our inbox, and starting last night is when we crossed the 10,000 threshold. So that was a very significant spike,” Verbick said. 

The concerns are the same in rural Wisconsin.

Chris Astrella, clerk of the Town of Oakland in Jefferson County, has seen a spike in absentee ballot requests amid coronavirus concerns.

“This morning actually in my inbox I had 39 requests for absentee ballots through the mail and normally I would get that in a week or two,” said Chris Astrella, clerk of the Town of Oakland in Jefferson County.

Astrella is one half of a staff of two, and worries what will happen if they get sick.

“If we have to shut the office down for a couple weeks because both of us have to self-quarantine, virtually nothing would get done,” he said.

The bigger concern is what happens on election day.

“We’ve had a significant number of our polling places say that they can’t have us on election day,” Verbick said. 

Poll workers across the state tend to be older and in the high risk category for Covid-19.

“It is something that I’m concerned about,” Astrella said. “If we have enough election workers drop out I’m not 100% sure how we’re going to handle it”

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