Wisconsin is one of the most closely watched states in this year's midterm elections, and not just by political pundits and journalists. Elections in Wisconsin are literally watched by poll observers — volunteers who monitor poll workers.
Both major political parties say they're finding it easier to recruit both observers and poll workers this year after former President Donald Trump’s baseless claims of voter fraud made election administration an issue in races big and small.
In Green Bay, Wisconsin, conspiracy theories about 2020 have bled into nonpartisan municipal races. With outside money sowing distrust about elections ahead of the midterms next month, election officials and poll workers are trying to restore faith in the system.
‘It’s going to be busy’
Maybe it's because her son recently got married, but Green Bay Municipal Clerk Celestine Jeffreys says setting up voting sites reminds her of wedding planning.
The city’s 27 polling sites are like “mini weddings happening where every place is slightly different, every place needs slightly different accouterments,” she says.
Many of the raw materials for this November's election — ballot sleeves, highlighters, “I Voted” stickers — are stored in a backroom at City Hall, stacked floor-to-ceiling on shelves and in overflowing boxes.
"It's a little messy, our election prep area,” Jeffreys says.
In Wisconsin, elections are administered at the local level. Jeffreys is one of more than 1,800 municipal officials in charge of running them with oversight but no funding from the state.
“It was busy in August [during the primary elections]. I had to get more ballots in 15 locations,” Jeffreys says.
She says most of the logistics are looking good for the midterms, but with high turnout expected, she needs more help.
"It's going to be busy,” she says. “I need 75 more poll workers. I always need poll workers."
By law, poll workers must be evenly split between the two major political parties or unaffiliated with either. Jeffreys says most are unaffiliated.
But this year, local Republicans have a record number of people signing up to be nominated, according to Jim Fitzgerald, chair of the Brown County Republican Party.
On a sunny day in September, volunteers pop into his office in a strip mall outside Green Bay to pick up candidates' yard signs. Other signs hang on the wall bearing slogans like “defund critical race theory” and “red wave.”
Fitzgerald says in addition to nominating more election inspectors than usual, local Republicans also trained a record number of election observers to watch for potential rule violations on Election Day.
Observers have to sign in, wear a badge and stand in designated areas at polling places so they can hear and "readily observe all public aspects of the process without disrupting the activities," according to the law.
Fitzgerald says Republicans are not trying to influence the election by intimidating Democratic voters.
"Heck no! I mean, you know, shame on us that we didn't do a better job providing poll workers and poll observers in the past,” he says. “It's just now that we're starting to take seriously the role we play in the voting process.”
It's no coincidence that Fitzgerald is having an easier time recruiting. The Republican National Committee has its own multimillion-dollar effort to register poll workers and observers nationwide.
But Fitzgerald says the Republican push for more poll watching is about restoring trust in the system, not undermining it. That’s essential, he says, to make sure Republican voters swayed by Trump’s debunked claims of widespread fraud in the 2020 election stay engaged.
“Would I have liked to see Donald Trump as president? You bet I would have. But the facts are that Joe Biden is the president, by whatever means,” Fitzgerald says. “Here's what I'm worried about with people that are really deep into conspiracy: That they're going to sit home. And when victory hangs in the balance, you cannot afford to have 1% or 2% sitting out."
Ken Glowacki of Green Bay won't be sitting out. He's 70 years old and says he's voted in every election since he was 18.
This year he also became an election observer. He's an independent, but was recruited by the local Republican Party at a showing of the pro-Trump film "2,000 Mules," which purports to show evidence of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election.
Glowacki says he was hearing conspiracy theories about the election and wanted to see the process for himself.
"I could either sit on the sidelines and try to sift through all of the chaff that's flying around for everybody,” he says, “or I could just get involved.”
November will be his third time observing, after April's municipal elections and the primary in August. The poll workers at St. Bernard Catholic Church were "very fair," he says.
"There was no attempt to hide anything or anything,” he says.
Glowacki says he feels better about his local elections after seeing how it's done, but he doesn't have the same confidence in elections statewide.
"I can only talk to the wards that I observed,” he says. “I can't jump from there and say 'Oh throughout the state it was perfect.' Who can make that stretch?”
In 2020, President Biden beat Trump in Wisconsin by about 21,000 votes, less than one percentage point. After the election there were two recounts paid for by Trump, multiple state audits and court cases, as well as a study by the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty. All of them confirmed the results and turned up no evidence of widespread fraud. Still, the unfounded claims have stirred up lasting distrust among Republicans.
In Green Bay, some of that distrust comes not from national conspiracy theories, but from the city’s experience with local elections in April 2020. It was just a few weeks into the coronavirus pandemic, and the city cut the number of polling places from 27 to just two.
One of them was at Green Bay West High School, where City Councilman Brian Johnson remembers a chaotic scene.
“The line wrapped around the building down the block,” he says.
Green Bay struggled to put together the election during the early days of the pandemic, and was one of many cities that accepted grant money from the Center for Tech and Civic Life, a nonprofit backed mainly by Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg. The grant helped fund plexiglass shields for polling sites and more workers to count a flood of mail-in ballots.
But it also set off a series of conservative lawsuits that continued up until a few months ago. None of the cases found any evidence of wrongdoing, but Johnson blames some of the lasting distrust on the appearance of outside influence.
"It's okay to acknowledge that mistakes were made without saying that the election was stolen. I think that's where a lot of the conspiracy dialogue comes from,” he says. “We just need to avoid that dialogue by making sure everything that we need is fully funded."
Wisconsin Republicans are pushing a constitutional ban on private grant money to help administer elections. Campaign fliers in Green Bay call on Republican voters to “ban Zuckerbucks,” but some officials say the proposal could make it harder to properly fund elections.
Ironically since 2020, outside money has rushed into Green Bay to influence local races in the name of election integrity, Johnson says. Some ads pushed debunked conspiracy theories about the election in the weeks leading up to this year's municipal elections. The conservative Restoration PAC and the left-leaning Open Democracy PAC each spent tens of thousands of dollars in Green Bay this year, weighing in on races where candidates typically only raise a few thousand dollars themselves.
"Free and fair elections are the Wisconsin way, but Green Bay's leaders changed all that,” says the narrator in one Restoration PAC ad. The left-leaning Open Democracy PAC ran Facebook ads calling on voters to “do your part to keep Wisconsin elections fair, secure and accessible.”
“We saw more PAC money being funneled into city council races than I've ever seen before,” says Johnson, who considers himself a political moderate. “City council races are nonpartisan, but somehow these PACs were able to identify individuals that maybe stood on one side of the aisle or the other. And it became an issue of election integrity versus the threats to democracy."
Johnson says the conspiracy theories have tainted an otherwise-legitimate conversation about managing local elections.
Longtime poll workers in Wisconsin also say they’ve seen a change since 2020.
“We have so much transparency and it's so frustrating seeing people that don't appreciate it,” says Colleen Gruszynski, who has been a poll worker for 20 years, since she was in high school.
She says some voters will always be skeptical of election officials in general, but now people are more likely to be suspicious of their own neighbors, too.
“It always seems to be happening somewhere else, but could never happen here,” says Gruszynski. “That has changed in the last couple of years.”
Dawn Smith has been a poll worker for more than 10 years. She's not affiliated with a political party and she runs the polling site at St. Paul's United Methodist, which also happens to be her church.
For the first time, Smith says, poll observers are coming to St. Paul’s – four showed up during the August primary. There have been no issues so far, she says, but a high turnout election next month could be overwhelming.
“I haven't had an issue with my observers being disrespectful, but I also go out of my way to make them feel welcome,” Smith says. “In August, it was busier than we were expecting. But I had the time to walk people through and answer their questions. In November, it's going to be crazy busy.”
Denise Hutchison is also a poll worker in Green Bay. Like Smith and Gruszynski, she's unaffiliated with a party. She wants people swayed by conspiracy theories about voting to get involved and see how the process works.
Turnout is expected to be high in November, with competitive U.S. Senate and governor's races on the ballot. Add to that a national push for more poll observers, there's likely to be more pressure on Hutchison and other poll workers to make sure the gears of democracy keep turning.
“It is absolutely an amazing process,” Hutchison says. “And yet there's a segment of the population that wants people to believe that it's not. We need to believe in our voting process and engage in our elections.”
This segment aired on October 6, 2022.