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Officials on spring election: 'We are not going to have a fair election'

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MADISON, Wis. (CBS 58) — In an emergency meeting, the Wisconsin Elections Commission painted a dire picture of the April 7 election that faces a multitude of issues caused by the COVID-19 crisis including staffing shortages, consolidation of polling places and a limited time frame to count absentee ballots.

“It’s going to be unfair,” Commissioner Mark Thomsen said. “Without modifications to statutes, we are not going to have a fair election on April 7.”

The commission conducted a survey of all 1,850 jurisdictions and their staffing concerns. 111 of those jurisdictions are at a ‘critical’ level, meaning they do not have enough poll workers to staff even one polling place. 126 jurisdictions say they are at ‘serious’ status which means they are unable to staff all desired polling places, while 542 jurisdictions are at ‘concerning’ staffing levels meaning they have fewer staff needed for efficient operations.

To address the shortage, the commission is looking for other pools of workers, such as state and county employees, workers from the state’s colleges and universities, labor unions and other groups.

Some municipalities, like Waukesha and Oconomowoc will consolidate to just one in-person voting location on Election Day. Officials with the commission are concerned that with the limited time left and the rapidly changing situation, some voters will not know if their polling place will be operational on April 7.

“What are we going to be telling these voters in these critical locations?” Commissioner Ann Jacobs asked. “‘Sorry, we’re not having an election today?’”

The commission is split 3-3 between commissioners appointed by democrats and republicans. Commissioners appointed by democrats want the state Legislature or the courts to move the election date to May 12 at the earliest. The commission does not have the power to move the election date, thought there are multiple ongoing lawsuits that aim to do just that. But commissioners appointed by republicans say delaying the election has its own risks.

“I don’t believe you, when you say it’ll be safer on May 12,” Dean Knudson, the commission’s chair told his colleagues. “In the interim, you’d have weeks during a crisis where we’d have vacant positions.”

Despite preparations and efforts to make the April 7 election fair and as safe as possible, officials worry the process could be disastrous.

“This election is probably going to go down as one of the worst elections in Wisconsin history,” Commissioner and Secretary Julie Glancey said.

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