In swing state Wisconsin, poll workers train for conflict prevention

Election officials across the country are bracing for confrontational poll watchers ahead of next week’s midterms. While observers play “a vital role in democracy,” Milwaukee city officials want to keep both workers and voters safe.

Morry Gash/AP
Claire Woodall-Vogg, executive director of the City of Milwaukee Election Commission, teaches a class to poll workers, Oct. 22, 2022, in Milwaukee. Worried about confrontational poll watchers, the city is offering more frequent training than in past elections.

Milwaukee’s top election official surveyed about 20 poll workers gathered in a classroom in a city building stuffed with election supplies, then spoke frankly about the tense environment they may face next week when the city expects more people watching their work than ever before.

“So who is worried about observer disruptions?” Claire Woodall-Vogg, head of the Milwaukee Election Commission, asked the group. “Who has read things or heard things on the news, and you’re a little nervous? I am. I’ll raise my hand,” she said, smiling.

A few of the workers raised their hands, too. They’re not alone in their concern: Election officials across the country are bracing for confrontational poll watchers fueled by lies about the legitimacy of the 2020 election spread by former President Donald Trump and others, even after Mr. Trump’s loss was upheld by repeated reviews, audits, and recounts, and courts rejected legal challenges.

That tension is higher in the handful of battleground states like Wisconsin, where Mr. Trump and others were quick to cry fraud after late-arriving results from Democratic-dominated Milwaukee helped Joe Biden narrowly carry the state in 2020. Recounts demanded by Mr. Trump confirmed Mr. Biden’s victory.

Ms. Woodall-Vogg has already felt the pressure. In an interview, she described being harassed and threatened after that election via email, phone calls, and letters to her home – threats serious enough that she has an assigned FBI agent to forward them to.

Still, Ms. Woodall-Vogg said she’d rather she be a target than her workers – some of whom have stepped down from managerial roles because of the pressure.

“We’re not paying them millions of bucks to endure that stress by any means,” Ms. Woodall-Vogg said.

Election officials nationally are concerned about a flood of conspiracy theorists signing up to work as poll watchers, with some groups that have trafficked in lies about the 2020 election recruiting and training watchers, particularly in swing states like Wisconsin.

Wisconsin requires poll workers to be trained only every two years, but this year Milwaukee is offering much more frequent training than in elections past, including informational videos and one-hour sessions focused on specific topics, like voter registration. The content remains unchanged.

In the mid-October session observed by The Associated Press, Ms. Woodall-Vogg was presenting to an experienced group of poll managers – known as chief inspectors – who will be responsible for directing workers at individual polling places. The managers get a flat payment of $325 for Election Day duties that begin before 7 a.m. and can stretch into the wee hours of the next morning. Non-managers get $220.

When the training turned to how to handle potential problems, Ms. Woodall-Vogg was careful to note that observers play “a vital role in our democracy.” But she also said she didn’t want her workers to feel threatened by them.

She demonstrated how to tape off sections where observers can stand – between 3 and 8 feet from voter check-in and registration areas.

“Take your tape and make a line and say, ‘This is the observer area,’ or make a box and say, ‘Please don’t leave this area,’” she said.

Violators first get a warning; if they do it again, they’re ordered to leave. If someone refuses, police are called.

Ms. Woodall-Vogg also walked the workers through how to handle challenges to voter eligibility based on a voter’s race or the language they speak. Such challenges are unacceptable, Ms. Woodall-Vogg said, and should get a warning as frivolous. An observer who makes a second such challenge would be ordered to leave.

Some poll workers who spoke to AP said they expect to see conflict, but they’re ready for it.

“I have a calling to serve,” said Andrea Nembhard, who has worked elections for more than a decade. She added: “I’m not afraid.”

Melody Villanueva said the same.

“I’m a problem solver, so I will de-escalate if necessary, and I will have to call the proper authority if necessary,” she said. “I am not one to fear much.”

Some workers acknowledged their nerves.

Averil Fletcher recounted calling the police during the August primary when a voter – convinced he had been deliberately locked out of the polling place – threw chairs and threatened workers. She had to wait 35 minutes for officers who had been busy elsewhere handling a pair of shootings.

Ms. Woodall-Vogg assured the managers that Ms. Fletcher’s experience “will never happen again.”

“If there is an election disturbance, if someone’s refusing to leave the polling place, and you’ve issued them an order to leave, we have a direct line and there will be officers that will respond to support you,” Ms. Woodall-Vogg told the chief inspectors.

Federal law enforcement will also be on standby. Four assistant U.S. attorneys are assigned to oversee Election Day in Wisconsin and deal with threats of violence to election staff and complaints of voting rights concerns, and the FBI has stationed agents throughout the country to address allegations of election fraud and other election abuses, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Thanks to increased interest, the city hit full election staffing levels with two weeks to spare, which Ms. Woodall-Vogg said has never happened before.

“Usually it’s more panicking, filling in gaps,” Ms. Woodall-Vogg said.

That included five times as many partisan nominees to be election workers than in previous elections, but Ms. Woodall-Vogg said she’s not worried about bad actors because the system is designed to prevent issues. Election inspectors always have multiple eyes over their shoulder as they work: a second inspector is required to sign off for each task, and chief inspectors are monitoring all workers.

“Anyone who might have bad intentions, we would immediately, I think, be able to identify,” she said.

This story was reported by The Associated Press. Harm Venhuizen contributed from Madison. 

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