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Wisconsin Election Officials: Rules and Constraints

Guardrails to ensure that Wisconsin election officials cannot disrupt election processes.

  • Written and Published in Partnership with All Voting is Local, with Special Thanks to Ballard Spahr, LLP
Published: September 29, 2022
View the entire Poll Worker Rules and Constraints series

In Wisconsin, election officials (the state’s legal term for poll workers) play an essential role in administering elections. They perform duties ranging from registering and assisting voters to securing voting equipment and tabulating results. In recent years, Wisconsin — like other states across the country — has worked diligently to recruit election officials despite shortages. For elections to function well, it is critical that government officials appoint enough qualified individuals from both political parties to serve as election officials. It is equally critical, however, that these officials perform their duties impartially, follow the law, and do not disrupt or interfere with voting and election administration.

Recent media reports indicate that individuals who subscribe to falsehoods about election processes are being recruited as poll workers in several battleground states, including Wisconsin. To be clear, state and local government officials cannot exclude poll workers based solely on their political beliefs. It is equally clear, however, that they can take reasonable steps to ensure that prospective poll workers are willing to and do, in fact, follow the law on Election Day.

Wisconsin, like other states, already has many guardrails in place to prevent those who seek to undermine elections from qualifying as election officials and disrupting election processes. These guardrails are detailed below, along with further actions that government officials can take to prevent disruptions on Election Day.

Legal Constraints on Election Officials

Eligibility

All applicants, including political party nominees, must go through the appointment process. Several types of election officials, detailed below, administer Wisconsin elections: chief election inspectors, election inspectors, greeters, tabulators, election registration officials, and special voting deputies. footnote1_syhfy7l 1 Wis. Stat. §§ 5.02(4e), 7.30; see also Wis. Elections Comm’n, Election Day Manual for Wisconsin Election Officials (hereinafter “Election Day Manual”), 7 (Sept. 2020), https://elections.wi.gov/media/13744/download.  Each type of election official must be appointed for a two-year term footnote2_og3swkb 2 Wis. Stat. § 7.30(6)(a).  —and no later than December of odd-numbered years — through the designated statutory process. footnote3_4ohrqwo 3 Wis. Stat. § 7.30(4); see also Poll Worker Selection, Wis. Elections Comm’n, https://elections.wi.gov/node/1215 (last visited Sept. 21, 2022).  Appointments for the 2022 cycle should have been made in December 2021. The appointment process works as follows:

  • Wisconsin law requires a municipality’s governing body footnote4_db9ce4z 4 Wis. Stat. § 5.02(6) (“‘Governing body’ means the common council of a city, board of supervisors of a town or board of trustees of a village.”). The City of Milwaukee utilizes a board of election commissioners that performs all duties typically performed by a municipal clerk. See Wis. Stat. §§ 7.20(1), 7.21.  to appoint election inspectors (who staff polling places) from lists of nominees presented by the two dominant political parties. footnote5_71myn4d 5 Wis. Stat. § 7.30(4); see also Election Day Manual, supra note 1, at 9. In practice, parties often deliver the lists to staff at the WEC.  The governing body generally must appoint each party’s first-choice nominee provided they meet the eligibility requirements described below, although it may request an exception from the Wisconsin Elections Commission (“WEC”) if there is “good cause” to not appoint that individual. footnote6_ita5j1u 6 Wis. Stat. § 7.30(4)(e).  The governing body may appoint the other listed nominees at its discretion until all positions are filled. footnote7_qb8m368 7 Wis. Stat. § 7.30(4)(b)2.c.  If the parties do not submit nomination lists by November 30 of the year in which appointments are made, the municipality’s mayor, president, or chairperson may nominate eligible individuals for the governing body to appoint without regard to party affiliation. footnote8_9yqkxqo 8 Wis. Stat. § 7.30(4)(c). In the City of Milwaukee, the board of election commissioners appoints eligible individuals when no party lists are submitted. Id.  In practice, most municipalities do not receive nomination lists from political parties.
  • The municipal clerk footnote9_em9ou7i 9 Wis. Stat. § 7.15(1); see also Election Day Manual, supra note 1, at 7. Municipal clerks are elected by the voters or appointed to their positions by the governing body of a given town, village, or city. Id.  — the local official charged with supervising a municipality’s elections and voter registration processes — designates one election inspector as the chief election inspector to be in charge of the polling place and act as a liaison between the other inspectors and the municipal clerk. footnote10_gi928bc 10 Wis. Stat. §§ 7.30(6)(b), 7.36; see also Election Day Manual, supra note 1, at 10.
  • Each municipality may appoint one additional election inspector as a greeter (to welcome voters and assist them in opening the doors) without regard to party affiliation. footnote11_6pe9qre 11 Wis. Stat. § 7.30(1)(b); see also Election Day Manual, supra note 1, at 13.
  • The municipal clerk also may appoint election registration officials (to conduct voter registration prior to and on Election Day) and tabulators (to aid inspectors in counting and tallying votes) without regard to party affiliation. footnote12_4xbubo0 12 Wis. Stat. §§ 6.28(1), 7.30(3); see also Election Day Manual, supra note 1, at 11, 13.
  • Like election inspectors, the two dominant political parties may nominate special voting deputies (who carry out absentee voting at certain care facilities) for the municipal clerk to appoint. footnote13_bjklk0b 13 Wis. Stat. § 6.875(4)(a), (b); see also Election Day Manual, supra note 1, at 12.  If no nominations are submitted, the municipal clerk may appoint eligible individuals without regard to party affiliation. footnote14_168uyf7 14 Id.

Applicants must meet certain eligibility requirements under Wisconsin law. Wisconsin law requires that all election officials be qualified voters of the county served by the polling place in which they work, subject to certain exceptions in the event a municipal clerk must appoint a substitute official to fill a vacancy. footnote15_dpzmxoi 15 Wis. Stat. § 7.30(2)(a). Chief election inspectors also must be a qualified voter of the municipality in which they serve. Id. There is no residency requirement for tabulators. See Election Day Manual, supra note 1, at 13.  Election officials also must be able to read and write English, “be capable” and of “good understanding,” and may not be a candidate for any office to be voted on at the polling place. footnote16_o6r36c8 16 Wis. Stat. § 7.30(2)(a).  According to the WEC, election inspectors also should not serve in any election in which their spouse or immediate family is a candidate on the ballot or in which a candidate’s success or failure to win would affect the inspector financially. footnote17_bpq0fw4 17 Wis. Elections Comm’n, Election Inspector Service at Election Where A Candidate’s Success or Failure May Affect the Inspector Financially (Feb. 4, 2015), https://elections.wi.gov/memo/election-inspector-service-election-where-candidates-success-or-failure-may-affect-inspector.  Sixteen and seventeen-year-old high school students may serve as election inspectors (but not chief election inspectors) provided they obtain parental or guardian approval and meet certain GPA requirements. footnote18_lymxf4o 18 Wis. Stat. § 7.30(2)(am).

Election inspectors and special voting deputies must be appointed to ensure bipartisan representation. Wisconsin law provides specific party affiliation requirements to ensure bipartisan representation in the election workforce. Polling places generally must have seven inspectors, split among the two dominant political parties. The party that received the most votes in the previous presidential or gubernatorial election receives four inspectors, while the other party receives three. footnote19_g6f4z2x 19 Wis. Stat. § 7.30(1)(a), (2)(a).  Election inspector vacancies must be filled by an inspector of the appropriate party. footnote20_7kmnhr0 20 Wis. Stat. § 2(b).  When a municipal clerk appoints special voting deputies to carry out absentee voting at certain care facilities, they similarly must appoint at least two individuals (one from each dominant political party) whenever possible. footnote21_udtt0cx 21 Wis. Stat. § (4)(a).

Election officials must complete training requirements. Wisconsin law requires that municipal clerks ensure election inspectors (including greeters), election registration officials, and special voting deputies attend at least one training program every two years. footnote22_hqi1lir 22 Wis. Stat. § 7.315(1)(a), (b)1, (4).  In practice, many municipal clerks provide at least two hours of training. No individual may serve in one of these positions without completing the training, although certain exceptions exist for emergency vacancies. footnote23_k226kwy 23 Wis. Stat. § 7.315(1)(b)1.  While no specific training curriculum exists, municipal clerks should, at a minimum, ensure that election officials are trained on the duties detailed in the WEC Election Day Manual. footnote24_70ejsn5 24 See Wis. Elections Comm’n, Poll Worker Training Requirements: Election Inspectors (hereinafter “Poll Worker Training Requirements”), https://elections.wi.gov/poll-workers-observers/working-polls/poll-worker-training-requirements (last visited Sept. 22, 2022).  The WEC also offers an online self-directed course for high school students serving as election inspectors. footnote25_a0tpcub 25 Id.  Unlike other election officials, chief election inspectors must complete a three-hour training course offered by the WEC, as well as an additional four hours of WEC-approved election training. footnote26_knssq5r 26 Wis. Stat. § 7.31(1); see also Poll Worker Training Requirements, supra note 24.  Chief election inspectors can request certification from the WEC only after completing this training requirement; no chief inspector may serve without a certificate, and each certificate must be renewed every two years. footnote27_lwwlu5s 27 Wis. Stat. § 7.31(3), (4).

Election officials must be willing to follow applicable laws and procedures. Within fifteen days of appointment, all election officials must sign and file an oath of office with the municipal clerk. footnote28_wdz9khf 28 Wis. Stat. § 7.30(5).  The oath requires each election official to swear that they “will support the constitution of the United States and the constitution of the State of Wisconsin, and will faithfully discharge the duties of said office to the best of [their] ability.” footnote29_o1xnjrf 29 See Wis. Elections Comm’n, Official Oath, https://elections.wi.gov/wec-form/official-oath-el-154 (last visited Sept. 21, 2022); see also Wis. Elections Comm’n, Oath of Special Voting Deputy, https://elections.wi.gov/wec-form/oath-special-voting-deputy-el-155 (last visited Sept. 21, 2022).  Pursuant to this oath, the municipal clerk or board of election commissioners may remove officials who refuse to sign the oath or demonstrate an unwillingness to comply. footnote30_26uksx9 30 Wis. Stat. § 7.30(c).  They cannot, however, turn away applicants solely on the basis of their viewpoints or beliefs so long as they are consistent with laws governing elections. footnote31_3hsbidz 31 See generally U.S. Const. amend. I.

Chain of Command

All election officials must answer to their municipal governing body and clerk. Under Wisconsin law, municipal clerks supervise and are responsible for all election activities within their municipality, including the training and performance of election officials. footnote32_gemox44 32 Wis. Stat. § 7.15(1).  Municipalities pay and appoint (either through the governing body or clerk, as detailed above) election officials, and municipal clerks can summarily remove election officials for not satisfying the qualifications described above, failing to attend training sessions, neglecting their official duties, or otherwise engaging in misconduct. footnote33_iuyschs 33 Wis. Stat. §§ 7.30(6)(c), 6.875(4)(b); see also id. § 7.03(1)(a)-(b).  Accordingly, election officials must answer only to their municipal governing body and clerk (or, in practice, delegees in the clerk’s office) rather than to their political party or any party official.

Each election official is tasked with specific duties to create a clear chain of command structure. These duties include:

  • Chief Inspector (1) – Subject to the supervision of the municipal clerk, the chief inspector directs and assigns tasks to the election inspectors and serves as a liaison between election inspectors and the municipal clerk. footnote34_2fc2m4k 34 Wis. Stat. § 7.36; see also Election Day Manual, supra note 1, at 10.
  • Election Inspectors (7) – Inspectors’ duties include, but are not limited to, setting up the polling place, registering and recording voters, issuing ballots, monitoring voting equipment, counting votes, and properly completing required forms. footnote35_d9xqnd7 35 Wis. Stat. § 7.37; see also Election Day Manual, supra note 1, at 9.  They also may preserve order by, for example, permitting only one person in a voting booth at a time, preventing any person from taking notice of how another person has voted, and preventing electioneering. footnote36_y3caj0k 36 Wis. Stat. § 7.37(2).  A municipality’s governing body may reduce the number of election inspectors from fewer to or greater than seven in certain instances. footnote37_grmcgpo 37 Wis. Stat. § 7.30(1).  In practice, using at least nine inspectors provides for a well-ordered Election Day.
  • Greeter (1) – Greeters welcome voters to the polling place and assist them in opening the doors if needed. footnote38_qzeclt5 38 Wis. Stat. § 7.30(1)(b); see also Election Day Manual, supra note 1, at 13.  Greeters also answer questions about the polling place and direct voters to the proper locations for registration and voting. footnote39_m68f02j 39 Id.  Greeters may, if necessary, serve as a substitute election inspector provided they meet the eligibility requirements detailed above, but may not perform the duties of an inspector while working as a greeter. footnote40_oxtlmcm 40 Id.
  • Tabulators (varies) – Tabulators aid election inspectors in counting and tallying votes at the end of the night. footnote41_oyfeif7 41 Wis. Stat. § 7.30(3)(b); see also Election Day Manual, supra note 1, at 13.  They assist and answer to election inspectors after the polls close. footnote42_m8g1wdw 42 Id.
  • Election Registration Officials (varies) – Election registration officials perform registration duties on Election Day and may ease election inspectors’ workload at high‑turnout elections. footnote43_n33t53w 43 Wis. Stat. § 6.28(1); see also Election Day Manual, supra note 1, at 11.  If a registration official fills in for an election inspector, they must also be appointed as an election inspector. footnote44_k7cy2ry 44 Id.
  • Special Voting Deputies (at least 2) – Special voting deputies conduct absentee voting at designated care facilities and retirement homes. footnote45_onnq71b 45 Wis. Stat. § 6.875; see also Election Day Manual, supra note 1, at 12.  They also may register voters during the open registration period provided they are also appointed and trained as election registration officials. footnote46_3odguhc 46 Id.

Following Applicable Laws

Election officials are further constrained by their duty to follow applicable local, state, and federal laws. footnote47_f31butu 47 Wis. Stat. § 7.30(5); see also supra note 29.  Failure to do so may violate their oath of office, warrant discharge by the municipal clerk, and subject them to civil and criminal liability. footnote48_9244c5f 48 See generally Wis. Stat. §§ 5.05, 12.60; see also Wis. Stat. § 12.13(2); 6.875(4)(b); 7.30(6)(c).

Election officials may not intimidate or harass voters. Federal and state laws prohibit actual or attempted intimidation, threats, or coercion against a voter for the purpose of interfering with the right to vote. footnote49_sl5p3tz 49 52 U.S.C. § 10101(b); 52 U.S.C. § 10307(b); 42 U.S.C. § 1985(3); 18 U.S.C. § 594; Wis. Stat. §§ 12.09, 12.11.  Violators are subject to significant civil and criminal liability. footnote50_jfwletj 50 Id.; see also Wis. Stat. § 12.60(1)(a).  Examples of prohibited intimidation include, but are not limited to, verbal threats of violence, confronting voters while wearing military-style or official-looking uniforms, disrupting voting lines or blocking entrances, directly and aggressively challenging voters’ qualifications, and appearing to patrol or police the voting line while armed. footnote51_t55oml7 51 See, e.g., Wis. Dep’t of Justice, How to Recognize and Report Voter Intimidation in Wisconsin (hereinafter “How to Recognize Voter Intimidation”) (Oct. 29, 2020), https://www.doj.state.wi.us/news-releases/how-recognize-and-report-voter-intimidation-wisconsin.

Election officials may not disrupt elections through disinformation or otherwise attempt to influence voters. In addition to prohibiting voter intimidation, Wisconsin law prohibits election officials from engaging in any activity “intended to influence voting at an election” on Election Day.  footnote52_hsmi0kt 52 Wis. Stat. § 12.03(1), (4).  This prohibition includes, but is not limited to, distributing “election-related material” (e.g., any written material that describes, or claims to describe, voters’ rights or responsibilities) at or near the entrance to polling locations, as doing so may “mislead and confuse” voters. footnote53_psolg73 53 Wis. Stat. § 12.035(1)-(2).  Wisconsin law further prohibits knowingly making or publishing “a false representation pertaining to a candidate or referendum” with the intent of affecting voting at an election. footnote54_hcjk7n3 54 Wis. Stat. § 12.05.  Efforts to spread disinformation — including false information about who can vote, how and when they can vote, or other aspects of the election process, such as vote counting and registration list maintenance — may therefore violate these provisions and warrant removal.

Election officials must follow proper procedures when challenging voters. Wisconsin law permits election inspectors to challenge voters only under limited circumstances and with clear constraints. Any challenge must be made “for reasonable cause” and pursuant to several permissible reasons listed on the state’s Challenge Documentation form. footnote55_9jz96ig 55 Wis. Stat. §§ 6.92 6.925, 6.93, 6.935, 6.94, 6.95, 6.96, 6.965, 6.97; see also Election Day Manual, supra note 1, at 73–75.  When an election inspector challenges a voter, another election inspector should administer the process to ensure fairness and objectivity. footnote56_pr6iwl1 56 Election Day Manual, supra note 1, at 74.  Election inspectors must document any challenge in a calm and respectful manner; as detailed above, aggressively and directly challenging voters’ qualifications constitutes impermissible voter intimidation. footnote57_4scb489 57 Id.; see also How to Recognize Voter Intimidation, supra note 51.  Sixteen and seventeen-year-old students serving as election inspectors may not challenge voters. footnote58_kfsk3kk 58 Wis. Stat. § 6.92(2).

Election inspectors must complete certain tasks in two-person, bipartisan teams. Whenever state law requires two or more inspectors to perform a function within a polling place, Wisconsin law requires the chief inspector to assign, to the extent possible, an equal number of inspectors from each political party so as to limit the access that any one individual has to ballots, voting equipment, and other sensitive materials without oversight. footnote59_q3a3ll4 59 Wis. Stat. §§ 7.30(2)(a), 7.37.  Tasks that require two or more inspectors include maintaining the poll lists on Election Day and remaking ballots on which an individual has voted for more than the maximum number of selections allowed. footnote60_38n97b7 60 Wis. Stat. § 7.37(7); Election Day Manual, supra note 1, at 38, 102–03.

Election officials may not tamper with ballots or voting equipment. Under Wisconsin law, election officials who tamper with voting equipment, ballots, poll lists, or registration lists may face felony charges. footnote61_hyfshp9 61 Wis. Stat. § 12.13(2).

Available Enforcement Mechanisms

Wisconsin municipal clerks and governing bodies have broad authority to ensure that elections run smoothly and remain free from disruptions by election officials. Available enforcement mechanisms include:

Screening process. As noted above, municipal governing bodies and clerks retain ultimate control over the appointment process for chief election inspectors and non-party nominated positions. footnote62_38ygn5q 62 Wis. Stat. §§ 7.30(6)(b), 6.875(4)(a).  And while municipal governing bodies generally must appoint political parties’ first-choice nominees as election inspectors, they may still request non-appointment from the WEC if good cause exists, and they can use discretion in deciding which of the remaining individuals they select as election inspectors from the parties’ nomination lists. footnote63_z33webg 63 Wis. Stat. §§ 7.30(4)(b), (4)(2)(e).  Consistent with this authority, municipalities may choose to develop clear election official screening plans to ensure that applicants understand their roles and positions within the election official chain of command and are willing to follow all applicable laws and procedures.

Training content. As noted above, state law requires all election officials to complete training before they work an election. footnote64_i2swlc2 64 Wis. Stat. §§ 7.31, 7.315.  And while election officials must complete this training every two years, municipal clerks may choose to require additional trainings before every election to ensure that all election officials understand rules and procedures — particularly new rules and procedures — before Election Day. To conserve resources, small municipalities may consider partnering with a neighboring municipality. At trainings, municipal clerks should remind election officials about relevant laws and rules, including their duty to answer to the clerk rather than their political parties, any party official, or any other outside individual or entity. Similarly, clerks should train election officials to identify and report any violations of these procedures. These training sessions provide a helpful opportunity for clerks to clearly explain the checks in place to prevent voter fraud or manipulation of the election process and provide context to correct common rumors and misperceptions.

Assigning election officials. Given the chief election inspector’s role in overseeing the polling place and directing the other inspectors on Election Day, municipal clerks should choose — to the extent possible — to appoint only individuals with substantial previous election official experience and demonstrated knowledge of voting procedures to serve in this role. This selection process may include administering the “Chief Inspector Self-Evaluation” developed by the WEC to gauge comprehension of election administration laws after completing the requisite training program. footnote65_0660112 65 Election Day Manual, supra note 1, at 11.  Clerks can also aim to track where first-time election officials are placed, distribute first‑time election officials evenly across the jurisdiction, and ensure that every polling location has at least one election official with previous experience. Further, clerks may also choose to rotate election officials throughout their shift. Doing so allows election officials to identify situations in which a colleague is not following proper procedure (regardless of their intention), report the incident, and resolve the issue with their chain of command.

Removal procedures. In the event that an election official neglects or refuses to comply with their duties, declines to follow applicable laws, or otherwise disrupts the election process, they can and should be immediately removed. footnote66_cya6a55 66 Wis. Stat. §§ 7.30(6)(c), 6.875(4)(b).  To ensure that municipalities maintain an adequate number of election officials in the event of a removal, clerks may choose to maintain a list of back up election officials to cover staffing shortages as well as: (1) train and appoint election registration officials as election inspectors in the event they need to fill in; (2) train and appoint special voting deputies as election registration officials to register voters during open registration; and (3) choose to appoint a greeter as an available substitute for election inspectors. footnote67_1akwy7z 67 Election Day Manual, supra note 1, at 11–12.

Oath of office. Finally, the oath of office provides a strong legal basis for preventing and addressing abuses by poll workers. footnote68_ab2iina 68 Wis. Stat. § 7.30(5).

End Notes