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Clerks, poll workers ready in Portage, Baraboo despite election confusion
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Clerks, poll workers ready in Portage, Baraboo despite election confusion

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It was the question Baraboo City Clerk Brenda Zeman kept hearing Monday as poll workers filtered in through the doors of the Civic Center gymnasium to set up for an election that was set to maybe take place Tuesday.

Did she hear the news, they asked. Would the election go on, given an executive order by Gov. Tony Evers signed just an hour earlier?

Evers’ order to delay the in-person election until June 9 was ruled unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court about four hours later.

While in limbo, local election officials proceeded Monday as if it would go on.

“We’re all in the waiting game right now,” Portage City Clerk Marie Moe said. “We are all set, ready to roll tomorrow, until we hear officially otherwise.”

The Wisconsin Elections Commission sent an advisory notice after the order, Moe said, which essentially called on officials to continue as planned. Columbia County Clerk Susan Moll echoed the idea of a waiting game, referring to the uncertainty as a “holding pattern.” Regardless, they both said elections could go on safely as planned Tuesday.

Notice of Executive Order 74 was sent out just before 1 p.m. Monday by the office of the governor. It cited concerns by health officials over COVID-19, which has been reported as the cause of death for 77 Wisconsin residents, according to the state Department of Health Services, disaster declarations, staffing challenges and poll worker shortages as well as the consolidation of polling locations in cities like Waukesha, Milwaukee and Green Bay.

Within minutes of the signed executive order, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, issued a joint statement calling the order unconstitutional. The Supreme Court ruled to block Evers’ order at 5 p.m. Monday.

Zeman held training the day before an election as usual, citing the contested order as reason to ensure they were prepared. Hearing the order, she said it was almost expected.

“I kind of knew it was going to come down to the last minute,” Zeman said. “It’s been so back and forth, I knew things were going to be last minute.”

The city had already sent out 3,000 absentee ballots and received about 2,200, more than they ever have, Zeman said.

In Portage, Moe said there were calls from voters asking to have absentee ballots sent to them, but the deadline was Friday. As of Thursday afternoon, the city had received 1,700 absentee ballots, which is “way off the charts,” Moe said. The last presidential primary in 2016 garnered about 800.

Baraboo poll worker Deb Paape has been working at elections the past five years. She favored a postponement, citing concerns for elderly and older poll workers who may be unnecessarily exposed to the novel coronavirus. Paape, who’s in her 60s, said she knows most of the workers are older and expressed worry over elderly relatives who might be exposed to the virus because of the danger it poses to people with compromised immune systems.

“I definitely feel they should have postponed,” Paape said.

Pamela Roland, of Baraboo, said she was disappointed not to see more young people at the training session Monday to take the place of older people with health concerns. At 43, she doesn’t carry much of a personal concern for her health in the face of the virus, but echoed concerns for older people. As for the executive order, it felt too late, she said.

“I think it was a decision that should have been made a while ago,” Roland said. “I think leaving it until this time is ridiculous no matter what they do.”

Baraboo School Board Vice President Doug Mering, whose seat is up for election, emailed state lawmakers who represent the school district on Friday, urging them to follow the governor’s call to make the election mail-in only and extend the deadline to May 19. He emphasized that the email represented his personal opinion and not that of the board.

“They’re a full-time Legislature and this is a time of, obviously, a statewide emergency,” Mering said Monday of why he felt compelled to contact them. “They need to be making decisions, not only about elections but other things,” including businesses, unemployment and health.

While he would prefer the election be done exclusively by mail, Mering said Evers has “taken the correct stance” by postponing in-person voting, given legislators’ unwillingness to consider the other option.

“It’s a public safety issue,” he said. “Obviously I’m up for election, but it’s not about me. At this point, it’s about the public’s safety.”

Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, replied to Mering on Friday and agreed that the election should be postponed and changed to absentee ballots only. Mering said he didn’t get a response from Sen. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green, nor state Reps. Tony Kurtz, R-Wonewoc, and Dave Considine, D-Baraboo.

Noting that “things could change” before Evers’ order was struck down in court, Mering urged everyone with an absentee ballot to fill them out and turn them in by Tuesday.

“It’s better that you get it off and get your vote represented than not,” he said.

Capital Newspapers reporter Susan Endres contributed to this report.

Follow Bridget on Twitter @cookebridget or contact her at 608-745-3513.

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