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Poll Workers ‘Not Comfortable,’ But Northwoods Voting Moves Ahead Amid Pandemic

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Patty Fitzpatrick really didn’t want to be at the polls on Tuesday, interacting with voters in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’m not comfortable.  But I feel like it’s my obligation and so I’m doing it,” she said.

Fitzpatrick serves as the chief election inspector for the city of Rhinelander, and she oversaw voting at Rhinelander High School on Tuesday.

But she wished in-person voting wasn’t even happening.

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Poll worker Mary Grieco prepares to greet voters in Rhinelander.

“For me personally, I feel like it’s counterintuitive when we are asked to stay at home…yet our legislature thinks it’s alright to have a room full of 20 or so people voting,” Fitzpatrick said.

On Monday, after a weekend of legislative inaction, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers issued an executive order that would have delayed voting for months.  Republican lawmakers fought the order, and just hours later, the state Supreme Court ruled Tuesday’s election would go forward.

“When Gov. Evers issued his executive order [postponing in-person voting], I was so relieved,” Fitzpatrick said.  “Then again, [I was] disappointed that it was overturned by the Supreme Court.”

As polls opened at 7 a.m. Tuesday, masks, hand sanitizer, and social-distancing floor markings symbolized the election more than photo IDs, ballots, and “I voted” stickers.

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A wife and husband arrive to vote in-person at a polling place in Rhinelander.

The last-minute back-and-forth gave many election officials whiplash.

Rhinelander City Clerk Val Foley said she was hoping voting would be postponed until after the peak of the virus’ spread had passed.

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Framed by hand sanitizer dispensers and cleaning supplies, poll worker Tom Jerow inspects a ballot.

Instead, clerks like her took steps to keep polling places as safe as possible.

“We have a lot of hand sanitizer,” Foley said.  “We’ve got little strip on the floor at six-foot marks.  We’re making sure that only a certain amount of people go into the polling place at one time.”

In-person turnout in Rhinelander surprised Foley.

“I thought there would be nobody coming in, or very, very few [people],” she said.

But voters kept steadily showing up on Tuesday.

Even so, the number of votes at the polls may be outpaced by absentee ballots Foley has received.

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Postal trays of absentee ballots keep arriving at Rhinelander City Clerk Val Foley's office.

“I’ve got a whole postal flat full of ballots that just came in the mail today,” she said.

Nearly a hundred ballots were waiting for Foley and her deputy, and that’s been consistent day over day.

Foley sent out more than 1,300 absentee ballots this year.  Similar elections have drawn closer to 250 absentee requests.

“This is all we do, is process absentee ballots,” Foley said.  “We work steady.  We’ve done overtime.  Twelve- to 16-hour days are typically normal.  I don’t know what the inside of my house looks like anymore.”

Federal judges ruled absentee ballots can be accepted until Apr. 13, as long as they’re postmarked no later than Tuesday.  No voting results will be released until Apr. 13, either.

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A voter applies hand sanitizer before receiving her ballot.

On that date, Fitzpatrick, Rhinelander’s election inspector, will be just halfway into a self-imposed home stay.

“I’m 70, so I’m in that high-risk group,” she said.  “When this is over, I will be in the house for the next two weeks to self-quarantine, because having been in this kind of a public venue, you just don’t want to take chances with my health or with other peoples’ health.”

Four members of the National Guard were assigned to work the polls in Rhinelander on Tuesday.

The city said more than half of its normal poll workers refused to show up.

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An election worker attempts to assist a voter at a polling place in Rhinelander.

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