Rock County election officials say the county could see record voter turnout for the Nov. 3 election.
With just 82 days before the largest election of the year, planning already is underway to ensure a safe and secure voting process plays out in Rock County as health risks from the COVID-19 pandemic still linger.
Rock County Clerk Lisa Tollefson said she expects clerks around the county to need additional Election Day poll workers due to the anticipated high number of absentee ballots.
In April, many poll workers across the county stepped back from their roles for various safety reasons related to the pandemic, but younger workers stepped up along with Wisconsin National Guard members to fill those gaps.
“The upcoming general election has so much work that goes into it,” Tollefson said. “We’re expecting that some municipalities may need to double their number of poll workers. There’s definitely going to be a need for more people, especially since we are required by law to count absentee ballots on Election Day.”
Tollefson said an emphasis will be on ensuring both Beloit and Janesville, the county’s two largest municipalities, have the staff needed on Election Day. That could mean reaching out to qualified high school and college students to fill in for workers who may not feel comfortable working due to the virus.
“Rock County always does really well in stepping up for what’s needed for elections,” Tollefson said. “Seeing the younger generation of poll workers interact with experienced workers is really special to see.”
Next month, the Wisconsin Election Commission (WEC) will send out instructions to Wisconsin residents on how to apply for an absentee ballot. Also new from the April election, voters can track their absentee ballots progress through the MyVote website.
In November of 2016, 19,009 absentee ballots were counted in Rock County, WEC data shows.
On Election Day, Tollefson’s office will serve as the central nervous system for Rock County clerks needing assistance for any voting-related issues. All absentee ballots are counted by the respective Rock County municipality the ballot originated from, with results being securely transmitted to Tollefson’s office after polls close.
As of Wednesday, Beloit City Clerk-Treasurer Lori Stottler said her office received a total of 2,627 absentee ballot applications for the upcoming election.
“That number will easily double,” Stottler said. “I think we will have a high turnout for both in-person and absentee.”
When an absentee ballot is received by Stottler’s office, the ballot will be sorted by ward and recorded into the state voter registry that is then secured alphabetically until the Election Day count.
“It’s a very secure process,” Stottler said. “I hope that MyVote will improve voter trust. That’s one of my biggest goals. I am looking into all the places that have issues.”
Stottler said it’s possible her office could see 5,000 to 6,000 absentee ballots, and due to the influx of absentee ballots, all options are on the table for streamlining the voting process on Election Day. That could mean reallocating resources to free up additional voting machines to be used to strictly count absentee ballots.
But no plans have been submitted to the Beloit Emergency Operations Center or reviewed by the Beloit City Council.
“It’s going to take all the time we have leading up to November to plan for this,” Stottler said. “The difficult part about moving around COVID-19 is that it’s a moving target and we don’t really know what the situation is going to be until we get closer to Election Day.”
Stottler said 54 of her pool of 200 poll workers are under the age of 65, which could pose a major shortage for the city if more experienced workers step back due to COVID-19.
“I am going to challenge my at-risk poll workers to go into their networks and ask them each for a recommendation of someone that could fill in for them,” Stottler said. “The last resort would be requesting assistance from the national guard.”
Stottler said it was one thing to get people interested to work on Election Day, but another for them to follow through with the needed paperwork and training before the big day.
“Getting the workers is just the first step,” Stottler said. “We have to get them fully engaged with the process. It can be overwhelming for some. I’d say we have about a 75% follow-through rate of those who start the process and then who actually come out for the election.”
Stottler said she plans to have a discussion with clerks from the surrounding Rock County area to develop new ideas.
“This is about working with what we have,” Stottler said. “We are going to find some good collective ideas to tackle this problem.”
On top of the perceived shortage of poll workers, clerks offices across the country must grapple with the expected flood of absentee ballots, and find ways to prevent ballots from being left uncounted after going undelivered by the U.S. Postal Service.
Stottler said her office plans to message out to the public that voters should have their absentee ballot in the mail by Oct. 26 to prevent any delay or risk the ballot going uncounted. That could even mean installing secure ballot drop boxes on the city’s east and west sides, Stottler added.
“The sooner you return the ballot, the sooner we can make sure we have everyone we need to count it,” Stottler said.
The postal service has put together a regional management team with coordinated outreach to clerks to open a line of communication with post masters.
“They are working with us to make sure that we have the accurate deadline to get things moving smoothly,” Stottler said.
The last day to request an absentee ballot for the Nov. 3 election is Oct. 29. The last day to vote in-person absentee is Oct. 30 at 5 p.m.
To register as a poll worker, visit beloitwi.gov/elections and select “2020-2021 Election Official Registration Packet” at the bottom of the page. Those who wish to have a packet mailed by post or sent via email may do so by calling the clerk’s office at 608-364-6680. Residents can also go to myvote.wi.gov and select “Become a Poll Worker” to be directed to their local clerk’s office.