Wisconsin Holds Another Pandemic Election, This Time With Added Confusion Over Mask Rules

With Wisconsin voters heading to the polls Tuesday for the state’s spring election, officials say a recent court decision striking down the governor’s statewide mask mandate has created last-minute confusion about mask requirements and COVID-19 safety at voting locations.

Gov. Tony Evers’ emergency order and statewide mask mandate were struck down by the Wisconsin Supreme Court last week, ending state requirements for poll workers and election observers to wear face masks.

Reid Magney, public information officer for the Wisconsin Elections Commission, said the agency issued guidance on Monday to help local clerks navigate the changes.

But he said the agency had received several questions from voters about why their poll workers and observers were not wearing masks at polling places.

“Whether or not the local poll workers are wearing masks (during Tuesday’s election) will depend upon is there a local public health order, what is the clerk requiring,” Magney said. “A clerk is free to require poll workers to wear a mask as a condition of their employment, but they don’t have to.”

Magney said clerks cannot require election observers to wear a mask, but they are subject to any local public health orders that may exist in their area. Voters cannot be refused a ballot for not wearing a mask.

Magney said the commission unanimously recommended that everyone still wear a mask at polling places. 

He said there were no reports of major disruptions or problems with Tuesday’s election as of early afternoon.

As of Tuesday morning, 278,896 voters had returned absentee ballots, about 6 percent of eligible voters.

Absentee voting numbers are generally used to estimate voter turnout. But Magney said the COVID-19 pandemic has made that more difficult.

“We’ve gone from typically 6 percent absentee votes to 60 percent last year at this time. It’s definitely a big increase,” Magney said.

The only statewide race on Tuesday’s ballot is for the state superintendent of public instruction. Magney said voter turnout in similar elections in the past has averaged about 15.5 percent.