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Emails show elections clerks, inspectors called for election delay long before April 7

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MADISON (WKOW) -- The Wisconsin Department of Health Services said Wednesday 71 people who tested positive for COVID-19 either worked at the polls or voted in person during the April 7 spring election.

DHS Spokesperson Elizabeth Goodsitt confirmed there is only a correlation between the cases and no direct link proving any of the people were infected at the polling place.

"Several of those people reported other possible exposures as well," Goodsitt said. "The question is now closed in our system because of the date range, so 71 is the final number."

Emails obtained by 27 News from Assembly Speaker Robin Vos's office through an open records request reveal local elections inspectors and clerks all over the state expressed grave concern about moving forward with in-person voting on April 7, urging legislative leaders and Governor Tony Evers to postpone the election.

"The conversation among all of them should've been happening March 1, should've been happening March 14," said Town of Oakland Clerk/Treasurer Chris Astrella.

Astrella sent an email to Vos and other legislative leaders on March 26 -- 12 days before the election -- and asked them to work with Evers on rescheduling the election.

"We are not trained in infection control and the state is sending mixed messages by asking us to stay home, except for election day," the email reads.

The emails came from town clerks, supervisors and elections inspectors from more than a dozen counties in every corner of the state, from Bayfield to Walworth. The common message mirrors one from Blue Mounds Election Inspector, Helen Kahl.

"I absolutely stand by my statements," Kahl said Tuesday evening. "I went in early (on April 7), helped set up a new drive thru procedure, then left.  I’m of an age and have some health issues which would have made the exposure dangerous."

For weeks, Evers and Republican lawmakers agreed the election had to go on as scheduled. On April 3, the Friday before the election, Evers pivoted and called for an all-mail election. On April 6, Evers then postponed the election. The Republican lawmakers sued and the conservative-majority state and U.S. Supreme Court fast-tracked the cases, ultimately siding with the GOP legislators.

"I think if they had worked collectively, they could've come up with a better solution that to hold an election on April 7," said Town of Lodi Chief Election Inspector Jan Haupt.

A spokesperson for Governor Evers did not respond Wednesday to questions about whether Evers wishes he had acted sooner to move the election.

Concerns about poll worker safety

The reasons outlined by local elections clerks almost universally included concerns about the ability, or lack thereof, to secure enough personal protective equipment (PPE) to keep poll inspectors and voters safe.

"I know our municipality didn't have the equipment that other municipalities had," Haupt said. "For instance, we had no plastic in front of us, we certainly weren't wearing PPE gear like some municipalities. As a matter of fact, Speaker Vos was in a gown and gloves."

The image of Vos decked out in full PPE continues to irritate Astrella.

"I can't tell you what I think. I was frustrated, I will say that," he said. "The message that Speaker Vos sends when he says 'it's safe to vote' and he's doing it behind a mask, gloves, a full down, and goggles? That's wildly inappropriate."

Both Astrella and Haupt said they hope Evers and Republican lawmakers are considering alternatives for the November election. They, along with Kahl, said they support mailing ballots to registered voters. Five states -- Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, and Utah -- have all-mail elections.

"For the upcoming General Election, I support a more broad attempt to get a ballot to all registered voters," Kahl said. "I’d like to see bi-partisan efforts on this, but I really don’t expect that to happen."

A. J. Bayatpour

Reporter, WKOW 27

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