Election workers with ties to the Republican Party will have a greater presence at local polls this year and next.
Dane County saw a five-fold increase in Republican Party-affiliated poll worker applicants for the 2022-2023 election cycle, according to county party leadership.
That uptick was ultimately reflected in lists of people authorized to work at local municipal polls through the end of 2023, including in the villages of Cambridge, Deerfield and Marshall. Municipal boards had to approve those lists by Dec. 31.
All three villages saw more Republican Party-affiliated applications than in years past and also more applicants who live outside their village limits.
Scott Grabins, chair of the Republican Party of Dane County, said it submitted nearly 300 applications to municipalities across the county for 2022-23, up from about 60 in 2020-21.
The deadline for county parties to submit applications to municipalities was Nov. 30, and local boards went on to approve 2022-23 worker lists at their December meetings.
Per state statute, applicants must live in the county but don’t have to live in the municipality where they’ll be working.
The Democratic Party of Dane County didn’t respond to repeated requests about whether it saw similar increased interest among its members. None of the applicants in Deerfield, Cambridge nor Marshall listed themselves as affiliated with the Democratic Party.
“Both parties have the right to submit lists of poll workers,” to municipalities, with up to half of the workers at any given polling place allowed to be party-affiliated, Grabins said. “And basically, as long as they’re qualified otherwise to be a poll worker, the municipality needs to accept those nominations.”
In an interview just before Christmas, Grabins said he wasn’t sure how many Republican-affiliated applications had by then been approved by municipal boards countywide, but said notification of those were beginning to reach him by mail.
Village administrators in Deerfield and Cambridge told their boards they were essentially bound to approve the lists submitted to them.
Cambridge Village Administrator Lisa Moen told the village board on Dec. 14 that her office had received the greatest number of party-affiliated applications in the nearly 20 years since she was hired.
Moen said the village initially received five names from the county Republican Party, one of whom later backed out saying they’d decided to work at a poll elsewhere in the county. Moen said all four remaining applicants lived near Cambridge, but not in the village.
The village board ultimately approved a list of 28 poll workers, including four affiliated with the Republican Party and a last-minute addition of village Public Works Director and former village board member Kris Breunig, who asked to be added following the brief discussion by the board about the additional Republican Party-affiliated workers.
They’ll all be paid $7.25 an hour.
Some Cambridge Village Board members expressed surprise at the surge in politically-affiliated interest from people who don’t reside in the village.
“Is that something that normally happens?” board member Carla Galler asked.
“No,” Moen said. “In all my years here, I think I’ve received one (party-affiliated) name in the past, and it was from a village resident. So, this is the first time.”
However, “we have to add them, per state statutes, if the party requests. If people want to serve, they are added to the list,” Moen said.
The Deerfield Village Board, meanwhile, on Dec. 27 approved nine workers for 2022-23, including one who lives in the town of Deerfield whose name was submitted through the county Republican Party.
Deerfield Village Administrator Elizabeth McCredie said she welcomed any additional applications, party-affiliated or not, after a challenging past couple of years during which poll workers have been in extreme short supply.
“This person lives in the township,” McCredie said. “It’s all I could get.”
Some longtime workers have backed away due to concerns about COVID-19, particularly those who are older, leaving polls short staffed since the start of the pandemic, McCredie said.
“COVID messed that up,” acknowledged board member Gary Wieczorek.
“I’m going to keep working on getting more people in those spots,” McCredie said.
Marshall Village Clerk Lindsey Johnson similarly said she welcomed the additional workers, regardless of political affiliation. The Marshall Village Board ultimately approved 33 poll workers for the 2022-23 election cycle who listed themselves as politically unaffiliated and two people who said they were affiliated with the Republican Party.
“Many of our election workers from years past have fallen into the category of ‘high risk’ in relation to COVID-19,” Johnson said in an email. Marshall as a result joined in “a huge push from municipalities nationwide to ask more people to step in and become poll workers to fill the void,” she said.
The Republican Party stepped up, she said, “submitting a list of names to many municipalities across the state.”
State Republican Party
Mark Jefferson, executive director of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, said in an interview that its statewide recruiting did uptick in advance of the Nov. 30 deadline to submit names, with a resulting statewide increase in applications.
In the end, he said about 5,000 people affiliated with the Republican Party applied to be poll workers in Wisconsin for the 2022-23 election cycle. He said about one-third of those applied through the state party’s website and their names were forwarded to their county parties, that are statutorily the ones responsible for submitting lists of names to municipalities.
“The others were recruited directly by the county parties,” he said. “And as long as their names were submitted by Nov. 30, they were required to be given an opportunity.”
The Democratic Party of Wisconsin did not respond to repeated emails on whether it had seen a similar statewide increase in recruiting and interest among its members.
Past election-driven interest
Jefferson said the results of recent elections drove the trend.
“The numbers are higher than they have been in past years because there has been renewed interest in election integrity and transparency,” Jefferson said. “There’s been a little more attention this past year, and we’ve been pushing it a little more and people have signed up.”
The opportunity to sign up to be a poll worker, with party affiliation, isn’t new, Jefferson noted. It’s been allowed via state law for years.
“This is something that is open to both major parties. It’s about transparency in the voting process,” he said. “Both sides can observe and can take part in the democratic process.”
“It can give people more confidence in the process, by being able to participate in it,” he added.
Grabins similarly said the Republican Party of Dane County more aggressively recruited poll workers than in past election cycles.
“Certainly, we have individuals who were helping us contact names, and promoted it as well, and all those names got routed back to us at the county party,” Grabins said.
Grabins said it’s “extremely rare” for applicants to be rejected.
The bar for disqualifying applicants is “pretty high… perhaps if somebody had volunteered in the past and they didn’t follow through. Or perhaps if you couldn’t refrain from partisan talk on the job,” he said.
He said in his years involved with the county party, he recalls only one or two applicants with which municipal clerks raised issues.
“In those cases, the municipal clerks contacted me, and we’ve worked it out,” Grabins said.
“(The clerks) have been able to give me a reason,” that they should be disqualified, he continued. “They can’t just dismiss them out of hand because they are from a party.”