DAVID GREENE, HOST:
All right, states across the country have postponed their primary elections this month because of the coronavirus pandemic, but not the state of Wisconsin. As Wisconsin Public Radio's Laurel White reports, the state is set to go ahead with its election tomorrow despite warnings from just about everyone.
LAUREL WHITE, BYLINE: When it became clear the election wasn't going to be postponed, Dean Kaufert turned to MacGyver, the star of a popular '80s TV show, for inspiration.
DEAN KAUFERT: MacGyver always improvised things to make things work.
WHITE: Kaufert is the mayor of Neenah, a town in northeast Wisconsin. He started by getting a city maintenance worker to build Plexiglas barriers to put between poll workers and voters on election day.
KAUFERT: I sketched something out on paper and gave it to my maintenance guy, and within six hours, he had a prototype for me.
WHITE: He's also making disposable writing utensils for electronic poll books made out of Q-tips and tin foil. And - this is the big one - he contacted the owners of an abandoned department store in town.
KAUFERT: And we're now holding the election in this 90,000-square-foot building with ample space so everyone can follow the guidelines that are recommended by the CDC.
WHITE: Despite all of this, Kaufert said he's still mad as hell the election is happening as scheduled. He and other mayors fought hard to get the election postponed. Lots of people here are frustrated that it's going forward.
DAINA ZEMLIAUSKAS: You know, this is just outrageous. It's madness.
WHITE: Less than a week before election day, Daina Zemliauskas backed out of her job as a poll worker in Madison. She felt so guilty, it took her three hours to write the resignation email to her city clerk.
ZEMLIAUSKAS: I wanted to hold out, but of course, the risk was just too great.
WHITE: Like the majority of Wisconsin poll workers, Zemliauskas is older than 60. That puts her at higher risk of severe symptoms of COVID-19 if she gets it. According to the state elections agency, clerks are dealing with a shortage of about 7,000 poll workers across the state. Neil Albrecht is the head of elections in Milwaukee.
NEIL ALBRECHT: Earlier this week, we were down to 400 election workers of the 1,400 that we would normally use.
WHITE: Milwaukee normally has 180 polling places on election day. Albrecht says they're cutting down to five for the entire city. Governor Tony Ever has been urging people to vote by mail, but requesting a ballot involves using a smartphone to upload a copy of a valid ID to meet Wisconsin's voter ID law. Many say it's impossible for some voters, particularly senior citizens and low-income people. Mary Ellen Spiegelberg lives in West Allis, Wis. She says she's voted in nearly every election for more than 70 years.
MARY ELLEN SPIEGELBERG: I still want to vote; so does my husband. We are accustomed to voting in every election, and this is an important one.
WHITE: Spiegelberg doesn't want to go to the polls in person because of the virus, and she doesn't have a way to take a picture of her ID and upload it with her mail-in ballot application.
SPIEGELBERG: I'm still using a Tracfone flip phone. I am in the process of looking for something, a smartphone of one type or another, but I don't have that yet.
WHITE: Spiegelberg said she can't ask one of her kids or grandkids to come and help because she's trying to avoid contact with others. Reverend Greg Lewis is also concerned many of his neighbors won't be able to vote. He's the president of Souls to the Polls, a group that works to mobilize black voters in Milwaukee.
GREG LEWIS: It's already difficult trying to get people in my neighborhood to come out and vote because we don't think our vote really counts.
WHITE: Milwaukee's black community has been hit particularly hard by COVID-19. Lewis himself was diagnosed with the virus. Now, he says, voting is going to be practically impossible.
LEWIS: And that is so, so incredibly heartbreaking.
WHITE: Wisconsin's election date is written into state law. Only the state legislature can postpone the election. There are also hundreds of state and local offices on the ballot, many with terms that start in April. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and other Republicans have opposed making any changes to the election. They've refused calls from Governor Evers, a Democrat, to shift to all-mail-in voting and lift requirements to make it easier to cast those ballots. Vos says he's going to work at a polling place in his district on election day.
ROBIN VOS: I'm looking forward to the pride that I'm going to feel knowing that hopefully over a million Wisconsinites did the right thing and cast their ballot either by mail or in person because democracy has to continue.
WHITE: Thanks to a federal court ruling late last week, Wisconsin voters will have until April 13 to get their mail-in ballots to their local clerk. That means results won't be known until next week. But that's the least of most people's worries right now.
For NPR News, I'm Laurel White in Madison.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.