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Reflections from a Poll Observer

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As I wrote earlier this week, I was in Wisconsin on Tuesday to observe the recall election. It was a long day, but very exciting to bear witness to democracy at work.

During the course of the day, I was stationed at two polling places, where I discussed problems I witnessed with the Chief Inspector, documented what worked and what didn’t work at the polling places, provided assistance to voters and alerted Election Protection lawyers of unresolved problems. The day started on a high note when two young women, who had both just turned 18, showed up to exercise their right to vote for the first time.

Throughout the day, I was impressed by the turnout and voters’ willingness to wait in long lines to cast a ballot. By about 10:30 am, 30% of registered voters had cast a ballot at the polling place I was stationed. That rose to 50% by lunchtime! This was true across the state where records were set for voter turnout in a non-presidential election. It was wonderful to see new voters, including young voters and newly naturalized citizens! 

As the day wore on, I learned of some issues impacting voters. First, there was confusion over where students and other voters who had recently moved should cast their ballots. The League of Women Voters of Wisconsin sent two email blasts during the day to help clarify and to provide would-be voters with a hotline number to call with questions. Redistricting added to the confusion because some voters were assigned to new polling place and either didn’t realize it or weren’t notified. When a voter showed up at the wrong polling place, poll workers did not have access to the information they needed in order to direct voters to the correct polling place. Hundreds of voters called the Election Protection Hotline, many looking for polling place information. More troubling were reports of confusion over the proof of residency requirement, the League received a minimum of 250 calls from students on this issue in the afternoon alone, and that some poll workers were requiring photo ID to vote despite the law being enjoined. Another disturbing issue was the report of robocalls which allegedly told those who had signed the recall petitions that they did not need to turn up to vote on Election Day.

The second polling location I observed was incredibly hectic. When I arrived there was a long line outside the polling place, partly due to poor signage indicating where registered voters versus unregistered voters should go. I discussed this and other observations with the Chief Inspector and he took action to address the back-up. Another reason the new location was so busy was an influx of new registrants, particularly as the polls were set to close. In the 4 hours I was there, in addition to the hundreds of voters that were already on the rolls that voted, approximately 200 voters registered and voted. When the polls closed at 8pm, the polling place still had a line of would-be voters out the door and they all were able to cast their vote. I’ll never forget the one woman who waited over an hour to register to vote for the first time and happily danced over to the ballot table excitedly announcing “it’s my turn now!”

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