Wisconsin caucuses pose thorny safety issues during pandemic

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Posted at 11:52 AM, Jan 07, 2021

Every January across Wisconsin, some towns and villages hold time-honored, in-person caucuses to nominate candidates for local offices. Residents gather in town or village halls, schools and other community spaces to vote for candidates in races for supervisor, treasurer and clerk.

It’s a practice guided by state law and rooted in tradition. But after the COVID-19 outbreak brought upheaval to the state’s 2020 primary and general elections, the unique structure of January caucuses raises questions about balancing inclusion and transparency with safety concerns.

Fearing that her local caucus would become a superspreader event, Celeste Koeberl and her husband, John Gostovich, began contacting town officials to request the opportunity to participate remotely. Their community of about 9,000 people along the St. Croix River is about 30 miles east of Minneapolis.

Koeberl, 66, and Gostovich, 72, argued that their advanced ages and underlying health conditions, as well as a disability that Gostovich has, make participation in the caucus dangerous.

“All we're trying to do is make our local government electoral process open to the people who are supposed to be able to participate in it, so that we can do that without threats to our health, and to our very lives,” Koeberl told Wisconsin Watch in an interview.

Town officials relocated the caucus, held Monday, from the town hall to the high school to offer more space for physical distancing but declined to offer a remote participation option.

So Koeberl filed a complaintwith the Wisconsin Elections Commission, and then — recognizing that the state agency could not act in time — filed a request for an emergency injunction in St. Croix County Circuit Court on Dec. 30.

In the court filing, Koeberl stated that the absence of a remote participation option would violate the couple’s voting rights and her husband’s disability protections. Koeberl made the argument herself — virtually — before Judge Scott J. Nordstrand.

On Monday morning, hours before the scheduled caucus, Nordstrand ruled against the couple, and the town caucus went ahead as planned. Across the state, dozens and perhaps hundreds of other such events are scheduled to take place in the coming weeks.

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