Green Bay council discusses election debacle
By Rich Palzewic
GREEN BAY – The Green Bay city council met remotely Thursday, April 9, to discuss the spring election and the problems that plagued thousands who cast ballots.
“We were forced to administer an election amid a pandemic,” Green Bay Mayor Eric Genrich said. “The experience was an abysmal one for voters and a challenging experience for poll workers. I want to apologize and thank every person who was involved with the election.”
Genrich said the biggest problem logistically for the spring election was the dramatic decline in the number of poll workers available.
“Polling locations also dropped out, but that was not the controlling factor,” he said. “Nearly 95 percent of our poll workers became unavailable before the election, which forced us to alter our plans. Once we hit what we thought was rock bottom with 38 poll workers, I reached out to (Green Bay Area Public School) Superintendent (Michelle) Langenfeld to see if we could use the four Green Bay public high schools. She graciously agreed, but unfortunately, the number of poll workers continued to decline, which necessitated us using only two polling stations at Green Bay East and West high schools.”
Genrich said he was never willing to press city employees or to recruit younger volunteers into service, potentially infecting and endangering them.
“People will get sick or possibly even die because of Tuesday’s in-person election, and I was unwilling to play a part in implicating additional people into this public health disaster,” he said. “I want everyone to know I take full ownership of that decision.”
Genrich said the two main reasons the city didn’t ask for National Guard and volunteer involvement was the training needed and the timing.
“City Clerk (Kris) Teske didn’t believe the training provided was adequate,” he said. “We received a call from the county clerk late last week and a more detailed message from Rep. Dave Steffen Sunday night (April 5) informing us of the National Guard’s availability. Both messages were received after we had already decided on consolidated down to two polling stations.”
Genrich said the city contemplated using the National Guard to assist with the enforcement of social distancing guidelines used by other municipalities, but city police officers provided this service on Election Day.
“We can take lots away from this election to learn for August and November,” said Genrich. “As an organization, we must figure out how to provide the assistance needed to handle a large number of absentee voter ballots this fall. The clerk’s office is not properly staffed for this purpose and can’t be expected to handle the workload without the help of others, who will have to be trained and certified to perform this work.”
Genrich said he wants to advocate for policy changes at the state level that allow for appropriate accommodations in case COVID-19 is still a threat to the community in August and November.
Green Bay resident Joe Moore weighed in during public comments.
“My family was one of those who spent more than three hours in line at East High,” he said. “I want to see some plan of action on what we’re going to do in the future. Instead of putting all of our eggs into one basket to rely on postponement or what is being discussed with mailings for August and November, we should have other plans in place. We relied way too much on thinking the election was going to be canceled or postponed, and we had no good back-up plan.”
Moore said when the data showed there would 30,000 voters and 14,000-plus absentee ballots were sent out for the spring election, everybody knew funneling 16,000 people through two locations wasn’t going to work.
“I had lots of people tell me they were upset because it was the first vote they missed in 40 or 50 years,” said District 8 Alder Chris Wery. “I wonder how the rest of Brown County and the state – take away Milwaukee – seemed to have a normal election? Appleton had 15 poll locations and things seemed normal. It was disgraceful for our city. As an alderperson, we are each responsible for thousands of people – we are their voice. We’ve heard from them, and that voice is one of anger. For me to ignore that voice means I’m not only ignoring them, but I’m probably flipping them the finger – I’m not going to do that. The citizens want answers with a triple exclamation point.”
Wery said no matter what happens at the state level, the city runs its own election and has to be responsible.
“We had weeks to prepare, and we dropped the ball,” he said. “People didn’t get their absentee ballots and many didn’t vote or were afraid to vote.”
Wery said he is going to ask the council to endorse a request to have the state elections commission investigate the spring election.
“They are an independent body – this is what they do,” he said. “They will review and provide us information to evaluate and take corrective action regarding our shortcomings and assist in creating an action plan to avoid future failures.”