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Officials on November election and coronavirus: ‘We have a lot more time to plan’

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MADISON, Wis. (CBS 58) – City of Milwaukee election officials believe they will be in a position to prevent issues that marred the spring election from becoming problems during the November election.

The city’s Judiciary and Legislation Committee held a meeting to examine the issues of the April 7 election and how to address and prevent them ahead of this fall’s presidential election, when the COVID-19 pandemic is expected to remain posing a challenge.

The spring election drew national attention as a flurry of issues and events leading up to April 7 sparked confusion and a rush to address shortfalls in resources. That included several late stage court decisions, an overwhelming amount of absentee ballot requests and a shortage in staffing.

In Milwaukee alone, about 2,700 voters who requested absentee ballots never got them on their initial request because of system glitches or mailing issues. However, 1,700 of them were able to eventually cast their vote, either through a second request for a ballot by mail or by voting in-person on election day.

Neil Albrecht, the retiring executive director of the Milwaukee Election Commission, told committee members his staff was working hard to handle the unprecedented amount of absentee ballot requests while at the same time addressing staffing shortages from workers who were sick from COVID-19.

Albrecht said the commission is in a better position to prepare for November.

“We have a lot more time to plan than we did for April 7,” Albrecht said. “As part of that plan we are building our temporary staffing pool, we’re going to have better communication with our election workers and we’re also going to be looking for a much higher level of engagement from city employees.”

Another issue that drew criticism was the decision to consolidate what is normally 180 voting sites in Milwaukee to just five, causing massive lines and hours-long wait times in order for people to cast their ballot. Albrecht defended that decision as the only resort to conduct a safe and fair election.

“If our administration of that election had, in any way, been compromised, we were subject to a recount in the state of Wisconsin and an insurmountable amount of accusations, in terms of how we had administered that election,” Albrecht told committee members. “We had to protect the election, we had to protect our election workers, and we had – to the best of our ability – to protect the public.”

Albrecht noted the commission was not aware of the availability of the Wisconsin National Guard as a resource for poll workers until April 3, the Friday before the election. By that time, the decision had already been made to consolidate the polling sites. Albrecht said the commission will consider the National Guard as a resource for November if they are needed, depending on the state of the pandemic at that point in time.

The United States Postal Service was invited to speak at the meeting but it did not participate.

On Wednesday, the Wisconsin Elections Commission is scheduled to finalize a mailing to send out to most voters in the state informing them of their options to vote in the November election as well as request an absentee ballot form. WEC members believe it can help alleviate some of the workload from municipalities.

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