A drop of about 75 to 80 percent of available poll workers for an election in the middle of a pandemic. A search for locations that would give proper social distancing because of the nature of how coronavirus spreads. And a general public that was scared to fill in the gaps of missing poll workers.
That’s what Milwaukee Election Commission Executive Director Neil Albrecht said were the reasons why Milwaukee had to drop from 180 polling sites for Tuesday’s 2020 presidential primary and local general election to just five much larger locations – much speculated as part of the reason why voter turnout was lower in Milwaukee than in past elections (along with the coronavirus itself).
“I made that decision…with what I knew to be the resources that were going to be available to the city of Milwaukee on Election Day at the time I had to select that number. I had to review the facilities…to provide a sufficient square footage to allow for voting with social distancing,” Albrecht said, saying he had a “skeleton crew” available to him.
“I had to allow for worker staffing. We had struggles…as the epicenter of the virus that were unique to the City of Milwaukee where our election workers were seeing in the news the spiking cases and hearing about hot spots.”
The staffing levels, normally in the thousands, were in the lower-to-middle hundreds.
“We probably had somewhere around 400 to 450 election workers at those polling sites. It is a number that was very fluid. I have no doubt even yesterday there were people who signed up to work, but did not appear to work at those voting centers. We won’t know for several days,” said Albrecht.
“In a presidential primary which has historically very high turnout…we would have anticipated an election worker staffing of anywhere from 1,800 to 2,200 election workers. Obviously, a much more robust election worker staffing than what we saw yesterday. I respect and appreciate the decision of so many election workers to sit out the election. The staff that was left did a heroic job of training the new people who came forward.”
That list of people included more than 100 Wisconsin National Guard workers, many of whom became poll workers after receiving video training.
“A really significant benefit for our ability to operate.”
Questions came as to why Madison, a much smaller city than Milwaukee, had 66 voting centers open compared to just five in Milwaukee. Albrecht mainly cited the greater medical pandemic COVID-19 is in Milwaukee compared to the capital city of Wisconsin.
“Two very, very different cities. The demographics are very different. The answer is really rooted in the COVID-19 pandemic and Milwaukee being at the epicenter of that pandemic,” he said.
“There were some very real information being presented to the public of the risk of being an election worker, opposition to operating…spiking cases, hot spots in the city of Milwaukee and deaths. How people in the City of Milwaukee were processing those messages and considering their own personal safety and making decisions on whether or not they wanted to be election workers, because of the difference between Milwaukee and any other municipality in the state…very much influenced decision making.”
In the end, he gave his “skeleton crew” a positive review.
“I consider it a successful election for the city of Milwaukee, (but it) should never have occurred…at a time when health officials are speculating that incidents or infection rates for COVID-19 are spiking in the city.”