‘People are going to get sick from this’: Fear, uncertainty cloud Wisconsin’s pandemic election

Veteran poll inspector Brook Soltvedt says Madison has done everything it can to keep voters safe, but in-person voting is bound to make some people sick

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Brook Soltvedt has worked the polls in Madison, Wisconsin, for at least 13 years. Election Day is usually a long one for poll workers, stretching far beyond voting hours, which run from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. 

Dee J. Hall / Wisconsin Watch

Brook Soltvedt, a Madison, Wis., election inspector, shows the gear she will need to run Tuesday’s election — including latex gloves, face shields, hand sanitizer and sanitizing wipes. Soltvedt has been in self-quarantine for two weeks and plans to return to two weeks of isolation after the election. She says the state is “flying blind” as it prepares to hold an election in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. Photo taken April 6, 2020.

But this year’s election is the first to coincide with a pandemic. So Soltvedt, a chief election inspector, is going to extremes to get ready, even as Democratic Gov. Tony Evers on Monday briefly suspended Tuesday’s in-person voting — a move that was quickly overturned after Republicans appealed it to the conservative-leaning Wisconsin Supreme Court. 

“They (voters) are just scared right now,” Evers said in announcing his executive order. “They want a governor of the state to stand up for them — that’s what I’m doing.”

The governor, in his response to the Republicans’ lawsuit, said “the COVID-19 virus has turned the polling place itself into a life-threatening danger.”

Soltvedt, a 60-year-old textbook editor, has isolated herself for more than two weeks to minimize exposure to the coronavirus. And after managing the polling site at Thoreau Elementary School on Madison’s near West Side, her plan is to quarantine for two more weeks to avoid making her 77-year-old husband, Dave Nelson, sick. 

Said Soltvedt, “When I get home Tuesday night, I’m going to strip in the garage, put my clothes in the washer and go downstairs for two weeks.” 

Because so many workers have declined to participate out of fear of the pandemic, the Madison City Clerk’s Office consolidated many of its polling places — a trend also playing out in other Wisconsin cities.

Thoreau Elementary will serve nearby voters from Soltvedt’s toney Nakoma neighborhood as well as residents of Allied Drive, a low-income area where people who lack cars would have a circuitous bus ride to the polling place.

Soltvedt praised staff from the clerk’s office as “heroes” for taking “extraordinary” measures to keep poll workers and voters safe and ensure votes are counted.  

Dee J. Hall / Wisconsin Watch

Brook Soltvedt is in charge of running the polling place at Thoreau Elementary School in Madison, Wis., on Tuesday. Soltvedt says the city is taking numerous precautions during the pandemic — including plexiglass shields to separate poll workers from voters, curbside voting, plastic face shields, gloves and plentiful hand sanitizer. Despite that, she says, some people who go to the polls Tuesday will get sick. Photo taken April 6, 2020.

Those steps include providing gloves and plastic face shields for poll workers, some of whom will sit behind plexiglass shields fashioned by the city’s Engineering Department to separate them from voters. And everyone will receive hand sanitizer.

Voters may also use their own black or blue pens, rather than those handled by others and sanitized by poll workers. And Soltvedt expects a lot of people would choose curbside voting, which allows them to complete ballots in their vehicles or outside the school.

“I really feel confident that the city has done about the best that they can do to have this be a — well, I can’t say a safe election,” Soltvedt said Monday. “It’s not going to be a safe election. People are going to get sick from this.”

Besides transmission of the virus, Soltvedt’s main worry is widespread voter confusion. 

A series of court decisions in recent days has triggered head-spinning changes to Wisconsin’s voting rules. 

The requirement that a witness sign absentee ballots cast during Gov. Tony Evers’ statewide “Safer at Home” order was relaxed — then reinstated

Soltvedt, vice president of the League of Women Voters of Dane County, wonders what will happen to the ballots already cast without a witness signature.

“Are they allowed to get a fresh ballot?” she asked. “And if so, how would that happen?”

Dee J. Hall / Wisconsin Watch

Cleveland Stevenson fills out an absentee ballot in his truck at the City-County Building in Madison, Wis., on April 1, 2020. Stevenson, a member of the Madison Fire Department, says he thinks in-person voting should be held on Tuesday, despite the coronavirus pandemic. “If done right,” he says, “we can avoid each other.”

A federal judge also extended the deadline for municipal clerks to receive a record 1.2 million-plus absentee ballots — then the original deadline was reinstated. A sharply divided U.S. Supreme Court ruled late Monday that absentee ballots must be postmarked by Election Day. Some voters reported Monday that they still had not gotten absentee ballots requested weeks ago.

Soltvedt described this 2020 election — with its ever-changing rules overlaid by fears of a deadly pandemic — as “totally flying blind.” She said Tuesday’s voting will not be the end of it.

“This whole election,” Soltvedt said, “is going to get litigated to kingdom come.” 

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