Poll workers train for conflict: ‘A little nervous? I am.’

Oct 30, 2022, 9:07 PM | Updated: Oct 31, 2022, 10:35 pm
Claire Woodall-Vogg, executive director of the City of Milwaukee Election Commission, teaches a cla...

Claire Woodall-Vogg, executive director of the City of Milwaukee Election Commission, teaches a class to poll workers Saturday, Oct. 22, 2022, in Milwaukee. Poll workers around America are bracing for conflict this election. At a recent training in swing-state Wisconsin, Milwaukee's top election official told workers it's OK to be nervous -- then walked them through how to handle conflict. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

(AP Photo/Morry Gash)

MILWAUKEE (AP) — 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 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 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 Trump confirmed Biden’s victory.

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, 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,” 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, 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, 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.

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, 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 70-year-old Andrea Nembhard, who has worked elections for more than a decade. She added: “I’m not afraid.”

Melody Villanueva, 46, 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.

Woodall-Vogg assured the managers that 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,” 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 Woodall-Vogg said has never happened before.

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

That included five times as many partisan nominees to be election workers than in previous elections, but 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.

___ Harm Venhuizen contributed from Madison. Venhuizen and Savage are corps members for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.


Learn more about the issues and factors at play in the midterms at https://apnews.com/hub/explaining-the-elections. And follow the AP’s election coverage of the 2022 elections at https://apnews.com/hub/2022-midterm-elections

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


Residents stand in line to enter a store which controls the flow of shoppers in Beijing, Sunday, No...
Associated Press

Protests of strict lockdown hit Shanghai, other China cities

TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) — A protest against China’s strict “zero-COVID” policies resurfaced in Shanghai on Sunday afternoon even after police cleared away hundreds of demonstrators in the early morning with force and pepper spray. Crowds stood and filmed as police started shoving at people who had gathered in the street and shouted, “We don’t want […]
3 hours ago
A U.S. soccer federation screenshot displaying Iran's national flag on social media without the emb...
Associated Press

At World Cup, US soccer scrubs Islamic emblem from Iran flag

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — The U.S. soccer federation is displaying Iran’s national flag on social media without the emblem of the Islamic Republic, saying it supports protesters in Iran ahead of the two nations’ World Cup match Tuesday. The federation said in a statement Sunday that it decided to forego the official flag on social […]
1 day ago
Associated Press

Police: 2 young children stabbed to death in Bronx apartment

NEW YORK (AP) — Two small children died of stab wounds after their mother was taken into custody for observation Saturday night in New York City, police said. A 3-year-old boy and an 11-month-old boy were found in a Bronx apartment with multiple stab wounds to the neck and torso and did not survive after […]
1 day ago
Associated Press

Today in History: November 27, Moscone and Milk fatally shot

Today in History Today is Sunday, Nov. 27, the 331st day of 2022. There are 34 days left in the year. Today’s Highlight in History: On Nov. 27, 1978, San Francisco Mayor George Moscone (mah-SKOH’-nee) and City Supervisor Harvey Milk, a gay-rights activist, were shot to death inside City Hall by former supervisor Dan White. […]
1 day ago
This undated photo provided on Nov. 27, 2022, by the North Korean government shows North Korean lea...
Associated Press

Kim’s daughter appears again, heating up succession debate

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s daughter made a public appearance again, this time with missile scientists and more honorific titles as her father’s “most beloved” or “precious” child. She’s only about 10, but her new, bold photos are deepening the debate over whether she’s being primed as a successor. […]
1 day ago
Associated Press

Shooting in Atlanta neighborhood kills 1 person, wounds 5

ATLANTA (AP) — A shooting in an Atlanta neighborhood Saturday evening killed one person and wounded five, police said. The Atlanta Police Department said several shots were fired during a dispute around 8 p.m. on the 17th Street bridge in Atlantic Station, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. Police said the shooting occurred after a group of […]
1 day ago

Sponsored Articles

Day & Night Air Conditioning, Heating and Plumbing

Prep the plumbing in your home just in time for the holidays

With the holidays approaching, it's important to know when your home is in need of heating and plumbing updates before more guests start to come around.
(Photo via MLB's Arizona Fall League / Twitter)...
Arizona Fall League

Top prospects to watch at this year’s Arizona Fall League

One of the most exciting elements of the MLB offseason is the Arizona Fall League, which began its 30th season Monday.
Quantum Fiber

Stream 4K and more with powerful, high-speed fiber internet

Picking which streaming services to subscribe to are difficult choices, and there is no room for internet that cannot handle increased demands.
Poll workers train for conflict: ‘A little nervous? I am.’