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In this April 7, 2020 file photo, voters observe social distancing guidelines as they wait in line to cast ballots in the presidential primary election in Milwaukee. (AP) In this April 7, 2020 file photo, voters observe social distancing guidelines as they wait in line to cast ballots in the presidential primary election in Milwaukee. (AP)

In this April 7, 2020 file photo, voters observe social distancing guidelines as they wait in line to cast ballots in the presidential primary election in Milwaukee. (AP)

By D.L. Davis September 8, 2023

It’s true, Wis. voters did not have standard notice of polling places in spring 2020 election

If Your Time is short

  • Amid the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Milwaukee officials made plans to cut the usual 180 polling locations to five sites citywide.

  • Voters had five days notice of what the procedure would be if the polls were declared open by the courts.

  • But the courts didn’t declare that in-person voting could be held until the evening before Election Day 

  • The city’s top election officials said traditional procedures of establishing polling places at least 30 days before an election were unable to be followed.

In the wake of the chaos of 2020, election reform has been a front-burner issue in many states, including Wisconsin — but not all proposals are anchored in the dispute over the presidential contest and then-President Donald Trump’s quest to hang onto power.

We’re looking into a claim about a proposal that has its roots in the spring 2020 election, which came at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Assembly Bill 298 is one of four proposals that received committee hearings earlier this summer. The measure would prohibit a municipality from closing more than half of its polling places within 30 days of an election.

"During the spring election of 2020, the City of Milwaukee reduced the number of active polling locations from 180 to five," state Rep. LaKeshia Myers, D-Milwaukee, said in a news release, which was also posted on X, formerly Twitter. "The site closures came days before the election and was done without proper notice to voters."

The measure passed the committee, and is awaiting action by the full Assembly. In an email, Myers told us the measure will likely be addressed "this legislative session; as it is a ‘hot topic’ on both sides of the aisle."

Meanwhile, Myers’ news release went on to say:

"The fact that the city of Milwaukee, our state’s largest municipality of nearly 600,000 people was limited to only five polling places made absolutely no sense, even in the middle of a pandemic. Especially considering smaller municipalities like Madison had 66. That math just doesn’t add up." 

Much of what Myers said has been well documented: The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported April 3, 2020, that the city of Milwaukee had announced five in-person voting centers for the April 7, 2020, election. That was just a fraction of the 180 polling sites that are usually open on Election Day.

The reduction was prompted by a severe shortage of poll workers, according to the report. Only 350 poll workers were available to work the election, down from the 1,400 the city normally had.

So, let’s look at the essence of Myers’ claim:  

Did the dramatic reduction to only five polling locations come "days before the election" and was it "done without proper notice to voters"?

When was notice given?

When asked for backup for the statement, Myers noted the five-day time frame between the city’s move to host only five polling locations and Election Day.

"The time frame did not allow for postcards to be mailed to registered voters to tell them where their new polling locations would be," Myers said in an email to PolitiFact Wisconsin.

Furthermore, Myers said, the only notice the public received was through online distribution and the media, which led to confusion.

"Some voters were turned away from the listed polling locations and told to go elsewhere," Myers wrote. "I received several calls from impacted constituents (and my uncle was sent to two different polling places on Election Day)."

Claire Woodall-Vogg, executive director of the City of Milwaukee Election Commission, acknowledged the lack of notice under existing standards, citing the pandemic as well as other factors. 

"Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a great deal of uncertainty surrounding the April 7th election," Woodall-Vogg said in an email to PolitiFact Wisconsin. "Because of ongoing, ever changing litigation and executive orders, traditional procedures of establishing polling places at least 30 days before an election were not followed."

In effect, Woodall-Vogg said, the notice was even more truncated than Myers indicated.

"Because of different court rulings, yes. Essentially voters across Wisconsin only had one day's notice that there would definitely be an election on April 7th, Woodall-Vogg said in the email.

Our ruling

Myers said polling "site closures came days before the election and was done without proper notice to voters."

She’s on point, but the phrasing of the claim — and the fact a law is proposed to remedy it — suggests the city officials were at fault for the lack of notice. The statement glosses past the fact that legal challenges and orders related to the pandemic that drove the lack of notice.

For a statement that is accurate but needs clarification or additional information, our rating is Mostly True. 

 

Our Sources

State Rep. LaKeshia Myers, D-Milwaukee, news release, June 6, 2023

Email, Rep. LaKeshia Myers, June 29, 2023, and Aug. 28, 2023

Email. Claire Woodall-Vogg, Milwaukee Election Commission, June 30, 2023, Aug. 30, 2023

Email, Richard Loeza, Wisconsin Legislative Reference Bureau, Aug. 28, 2023

Email, Barry Burden, University of Wisconsin-Madison, June 29, 2023

Email, Wisconsin Elections Commission, Aug. 9, 2023.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel "Milwaukee has just 5 polling places for Tuesday's election. Here's where they are," April 3, 2023

Type D notice, "Location and hours of polling place"  Milwaukee Election Commission

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More by D.L. Davis

It’s true, Wis. voters did not have standard notice of polling places in spring 2020 election

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