In a lot of ways, the 2020 spring election and presidential primary looked like any other election in Stoughton, one poll worker told the Hub.
But Amy Ketterer, who has worked the Stoughton polls for more than 22 years, described the differences as “monumental.”
Those included face masks and plastic barriers separating voters and workers, confusion the previous day over whether the election would take place and all voting consolidated into a single location at the Stoughton Wellness and Athletic Center, which brought in 821 voters.
With the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic looming this year, 16 states postponed their primaries, but Wisconsin moved forward with its election, the fate of its Democratic primary delegates, a Wisconsin Supreme Court judge, and many local offices hanging in the balance.
Fears of the virus spreading led Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, to try to persuade the Republican-dominated state Legislature to postpone the election in the weeks prior, all the while stating he did not have the authority to do so on his own.
On the day before the election, Evers attempted to move it himself by executive order, but Republican-backed lawsuits led to decisions by the state Supreme Court and U.S. Supreme Court to move the election back to Tuesday and mostly rescind an extension on the absentee ballot deadline.
That extension, delivered by a federal judge the previous week, had allowed voters to return ballots as late as April 13, as the unprecedented number of ballots requested caused many people to receive them late. The U.S. Supreme Court decision kept the April 13 deadline but required all ballots to be returned in person or postmarked by the close of polls April 7.
The chaos left municipal clerks like Holly Licht in Stoughton scrambling to organize a safe election in the city despite rapidly changing orders at the state level. That came after weeks of poll worker cancellations because of concerns about contracting COVID-19, and worries about whether the city would receive enough personal protective equipment for volunteers and staff.
“I guess there was a mix of emotions,” Licht said.
Though she had heard about the postponement order, she had also been advised by the Wisconsin Elections Commission to continue to prepare for an election to happen the next day due to likely legal challenges.
The Ketterers didn’t consider canceling their shifts.
“I don’t know anybody personally who was happy that the election was happening,” Ketterer said.
But she said she considered it her duty to make sure the vote was as safe and accurate as possible despite the threat of disease and the changing decisions by courts and politicians.
“If an election was going on, we wanted to be there,” she said.
Ketterer, who works in hospice care, said she felt that as a medical professional, she had a good understanding of the virus and the threat it posed and would be safe as long as proper personal protection equipment was provided to her.
That wasn’t always a given, Licht told the Hub.
Licht said her office received a limited number of masks, gloves and sanitizing spray from the state. She also got donated equipment from other departments and a Stoughton resident who sewed 25 cloth masks for the election volunteers.
With the combination of what city staff were able to gather themselves and what was given by the state, Licht said staff and poll workers had enough equipment to stay safe during the day. But if they’d had to rely exclusively on the state she said, it wouldn’t have been enough.
Licht said at one point, she was worried about whether the city would get the equipment at all. In the first shipment, it received a box of N-95 respirator masks from the state that were actually meant for healthcare workers and had to be returned.
Licht said six National Guard members were sent by Dane County to help out, given the shortage of poll workers. Poll workers across the state canceled over concerns about the virus, with many over 65, putting them in the high-risk category for COVID-19.
That had already caused Stoughton to consolidate its usual four polling locations into one.
Guard members, who had been trained by a video just days before the election, helped by acting as greeters, answering voters’ questions and cleaning and sanitizing the areas, Licht said.
Ketterer said she was impressed by how smoothly everything was run on Election Day and how many resources had been collected. That included the placement of the chairs for poll workers six feet apart, the plastic dividers shielding the voters and volunteers and the Guard members.
“The city really went to bat for us,” she said.
Ketterer said she noticed one Guard member, outfitted in a mask and gloves, stayed from early in the morning when the polls opened at 6 a.m., to 8 p.m. when they closed, disinfecting the voting booths each time a voter used them.
Controversy continued after the election over issues such as whether clerks could count absentee ballots received without a postmark.
But as Ketterer drove to the fire station to help count the remaining absentee ballots, she said that despite what was happening around the state, “I think we were incredibly lucky.”