MILWAUKEE — Election workers across the nation have been threatened with violence, accused of tampering with results of the Nov. 3 election, and some have battled a virus that’s killed nearly 300,000 people nationwide. For these people, the desire to serve their communities has come with unexpected tensions because of a bitterly contentious presidential race and the subsequent legal battles over its outcome.
Claire Woodall-Vogg has weathered many such challenges in her five months as the top election official in Milwaukee — the largest city in a swing state whose results were scrutinized, criticized and the subject of allegations of “late-night ballot dumps” that favored President-elect Joe Biden.
“(It’s been) extremely partisan and divided,” said Woodall-Vogg, executive director of the Milwaukee Election Commission. “That doesn't shock me, but the fact that people are supporting someone trying to overturn the actual results is disappointing.”
Many of her colleagues laud her performance. Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett told Wisconsin Watch that she’s supervised the most transparent election the city has ever seen. Common Council President Cavalier Johnson called her performance “stellar” and her predecessor, Neil Albrecht, said he “couldn’t think of anyone more dedicated to avoiding error.” Her deputy, Jonatan Zuniga, said if she “had a million and one things to do, she did them all.”
Still, critics rebuke her missteps, such as mistakenly leaving behind a flash drive in a tabulator on election night, which she later retrieved.
“Word of advice, Claire — if you can’t handle your job on the biggest election night every four years, find a different line of work,” said former Milwaukee alderman Bob Donovan on his Facebook page. He declined an interview.
This election has forced Woodall-Vogg to take on responsibilities she never anticipated, from becoming the face and voice of Milwaukee for news outlets across the country to fighting attempts to cast Wisconsin’s vote count as fraudulent.
A student of history
As a child in Birmingham, Alabama, Woodall-Vogg developed a passion for history, a subject both her open-minded,“not typical Bible Belt” parents majored in. The family skipped trips to Disney World (“I’ve never been,” Claire noted), instead choosing visits to Gettysburg, Williamsburg or the Alamo.
Growing up in the city where the civil rights movement blossomed, she understood from a young age the attempts to suppress Black voters and the sacrifices people made to fight for their rights. It’s something that stuck with the 34-year-old after she moved to the Midwest.
“It isn’t lost on me living in Milwaukee now,” Woodall-Vogg said. “I do think that voting rights in Wisconsin are very much under attack and in a very racially motivated way.”
She pointed to the Donald Trump campaign’s partial recount targeting absentee voters in Milwaukee County, which has nearly 70% of the state’s Black population. On a broader scale, voter ID laws have contributed to voters’ confusion in the state and made it difficult for many people to vote, she added.
After deciding to transfer from the small liberal arts college she attended for two years in Alabama, she took a semester to volunteer in Tanzania, where she met her then-boyfriend, a Milwaukeean. She landed at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, a decision she made quickly “in the middle of the night” but one that would change the trajectory of her personal and professional life.
She loved the Midwest, especially people’s friendliness, which reminded her of the South. The snow was originally a welcome change (she now says she hates it) and snow days were a nice excuse for a group trip to the bar.
After graduation, she entertained a career in law, following in her father’s footsteps, who served on the state Supreme Court of Alabama. She moved to Virginia for her first year of law school, but quickly realized the field was far too “black and white” for her to pursue.
“I see the gray area of everything. So it (drove) me crazy,” she said.
After a few moves back and forth to Alabama, she returned to Milwaukee in 2010 to work as the drug-free communities coordinator at Safe & Sound, a community group with a mission to “unite residents, youth, law enforcement and community resources.”
Although she enjoyed working in the community, she was sometimes dissatisfied with the organization’s focus on decreasing drug and alcohol use. She felt it would be more fruitful to talk to residents about what they wanted, and address issues such as poverty, jobs and housing.
“I think positive community organizing is really listening to the residents and their needs, and what would make them feel empowered or safe in their community,” Woodall-Vogg said.
While at Safe & Sound, she worked with Albrecht, and the two developed a friendship. When he left Safe & Sound to rejoin the commission as its director, he convinced her to join him, and her eventful tenure with the Milwaukee Election Commission began.
Early days at the commission
When she started work as an elections services administrator, Woodall-Vogg never envisioned herself leading the commission. She relished the troves of data at her disposal — the lack of data in the nonprofit sector always frustrated her — but parts of the job were daunting.
She recalls sitting in the parking lot outside Central Count in 2014, dry heaving at the thought of running the facility during her first general election. There were 23,244 absentee ballots to count in that election. This year, her team processed just over 169,000.
Over time, Albrecht said Woodall-Vogg grew into the role, taking on management and training responsibilities and overcoming the fears that rocked her early months at the commission.
She became the commission’s expert on data entry and the statewide voter registration database. Woodall-Vogg organized voter engagement and education, a role she loved because it allowed her to work alongside advocates in the community.
After 6 1/2 years with the commission, confronted with the cost of day care for her son, she made the difficult decision to leave in 2019 to become Cedarburg’s city clerk.
Woodall-Vogg knew almost immediately it wasn’t a good fit.
“I thought I would enjoy the boringness,” she said. But, she soon found herself constantly emailing Albrecht to see what the commission was up to.
As she considered her next step, making it to the final round of interviews to be the chief elections official in Buncombe County in North Carolina, she got a call from Albrecht. He was planning to retire after 15 years at the commission. He had referred her name to Barrett as a potential successor.
Pandemic sweeps through Wisconsin
Woodall-Vogg left her job in Cedarburg and returned to the commission in February, with Albrecht still at its helm. They steeled themselves for what they knew would be a punishing election cycle.
“Any year there was the presidential or the midterm, we had to just accept the fact that you were going to be sacrificing that year of your life, that it would be impractical for you to commit to vacations or social engagements, or lunches or weekends away,” Albrecht said.
Then the pandemic hit. In March, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers issued a stay-at-home order. With so much unknown about the virus, fear swelled across the state and within the commission, yet staff continued to come to work in person, interacting in close proximity and with no personal protective equipment in order to get through their mountain of work.
Woodall-Vogg recalls getting calls from her husband at 3 a.m. to ask where she was, returning home for such short periods that she barely slept before going back to work.
She sent her son to stay with her parents in Alabama. In a normal election, they traveled to Milwaukee to help out during these busy times. But concerned about Woodall-Vogg’s constant exposure to other people, they brought their grandson back home with them. Woodall-Vogg said she spent five weeks apart from her son this year.
The April primary became a national lightning rod. It was widely seen as a failure across Wisconsin, and especially in Milwaukee, where the normal number of 182 polling places was reduced to five. Voters waited for hours outside polling locations, and a study by the Brennan Center for Justice found the decrease in polling places especially hurt Black voter turnout.
Woodall-Vogg focused on absentee voting during the April election. She said the discussions about in-person polling locations were between Albrecht and his deputy, Theresa Gabriel. Woodall-Vogg remembers her “mouth dropping” when she heard the city could have as few as five in-person polling places.
“I stayed in my lane because I was told to stay in my lane,” Woodall-Vogg said.
A tense confirmation process
After enduring the grueling April election, Woodall-Vogg faced another mountain: confirmation.
Johnson, the council president, thought she was an excellent fit. “We really needed somebody to step into position and to do the best job possible. And I was convinced that Claire was that candidate,” Johnson said, citing her years of experience at the commission.
Yet, her confirmation quickly became chaotic, resulting in her withdrawing and renewing her candidacy in the space of a week.
Much of it had to do with the May 25 police killing of George Floyd, a Black man, in Minneapolis, according to Albrecht and others. The council decided unanimously on June 16 to send all of Barrett’s appointments back to committee to hear their plans for racial justice.
Timing was crucial: With Albrecht’s term ending and the August primary looming, members worried about smoothly transitioning to the next executive director. Plus, Albrecht’s deputy, Gabriel, planned to step down, leaving the commission without a director or deputy if Woodall-Vogg’s appointment was not approved.
Although she testified before the Judiciary and Legislation Committee, offered to meet with council members who had unanswered questions and submitted a plan detailing her goals for improving racial justice, some council members wanted more time to evaluate her for the role.
Woodall-Vogg, who is white, was frustrated by the insinuation that she didn’t understand or focus enough on the attempts to disenfranchise people of color.
“I don't think social justice and the injustice and attack on voting rights was anything new to me or Neil, or to the election commission and how we've operated,” she said, citing her years of work to address these issues in Milwaukee by increasing access to early voting sites and focusing on voter registration.
Adding to her stress, Woodall-Vogg planned to move from Glendale to Milwaukee on the night of the commission meeting, a prerequisite to serve in Barrett’s cabinet. She decided to withdraw and pursue a position as the clerk in West Allis.
Following the decision, Woodall-Vogg sent an email to Ald. Milele Coggs in “a moment of complete emotion.” In the message, she expressed her frustration with how some council members questioned why Gabriel wasn’t considered for the executive director position. She felt they distilled Gabriel’s candidacy to focus on her sexual orientation and race.
“Maybe as Alderwoman (Nikiya) Dodd and (JoCasta) Zamarripa suggested, the mayor should bring back the openly gay, Asian female who has zero passion for recruitment, training of poll workers, which was 80 percent of her job duties,” Woodall-Vogg wrote.
Coggs called the email “completely unprofessional and disrespectful,” during a July 7 council meeting, adding: “My vote is not just based on the urgency of upcoming elections, it’s based on the quality of professionals we choose to work for the city of Milwaukee and interface with the public and us.”
“I owe them both an apology,” Woodall-Vogg said, referring to Coggs and Gabriel. She added that since July, her relationship with Coggs has improved, and that she has “great respect” for the alderwoman.
Coggs did not respond to requests for an interview.
A week after she withdrew, Woodall-Vogg reversed her decision, following discussions with Johnson and the mayor’s office. On July 7, her appointment was approved by an 8-7 vote.
A historic general election
Moving past the confrontational approval process, Woodall-Vogg began building her team. She brought on Zuniga, a Milwaukee resident with a passion for voter engagement, as her deputy. Zuniga had worked in community groups, such as Via Community Development Corp. (formerly Layton Boulevard West Neighbors), for five years before Woodall-Vogg texted him — on his birthday — to talk about the position.
Johnson said Zuniga’s appointment affirmed that Woodall-Vogg was in touch with the needs of the communities she served and would back up her proposed plans on racial justice and inclusion with action.
Faced with the challenges of running an election during a pandemic, Woodall-Vogg is proud of how her team performed. One example is the socially distanced Central Count operation, which was run by a cavalry of PPE-clad workers set up in pods to avoid movement around the room and potential spread of the virus.
Viewers could monitor the process remotely through a livestream, and media and observers were allowed to roam through designated areas of the Wisconsin Center. High-speed tabulators, not connected to the internet for enhanced security, were placed at certain pods for workers to feed ballots into.
Barrett said Woodall-Vogg’s experience with the highly technical aspects of Central Count was one of the reasons he was drawn to her as a nominee.
“I never saw someone get so excited about an envelope opener,” he said. “The technology to do this is something that really excites her.”
While election workers were hard to find in April, there was a surge of interest in November. There were 3,400 workers in Milwaukee, a 1,000-person increase from 2016, Woodall-Vogg said. The extra workers sanitized voting stations and enforced social distancing at polling places and Central Count. Recovering from April’s five polling place disaster, the city had 173 polling places open for in-person voters, and 14 early voting sites.
Flash drive flashbacks
Along with the triumphs, she recognizes areas to improve. One gaffe that continues to weigh on her mind is when she left a flash drive in a tabulator on election night. While critics say it compromised election security, she adamantly denies this, noting that the drive was visible on the livestream and under the supervision of other commission members during her absence.
Woodall-Vogg fears continued resistance from the Legislature on changes that she thinks would make administering elections more efficient and voting more accessible for Wisconsinites. Albrecht said the Legislature’s actions contributed to his decision to retire.
“You can only get beaten down so many times. And it was very difficult for me after a while to feel like I wasn't a hamster in a ball,” Albrecht said.
With the abundant unsubstantiated allegations of voter fraud this year, Woodall-Vogg worries that legislators will find ways to decrease voter access in the future.
“I probably am stuck on the hamster wheel,” Woodall-Vogg said. She added later, with a laugh, “The key is that I try not to think too introspectively and ahead, because otherwise I get super depressed.”
For now, Woodall-Vogg’s focus is closer to home. She is 20 weeks’ pregnant and battled sickness throughout the election season, which has since subsided.
“I did have a lot of morning sickness — I had all-day sickness,” she said, “but it might have just been from the elections.” Now, Woodall-Vogg can’t wait for nights where she can watch reality TV and cook focaccia bread for her husband and 3-year-old instead of worrying about absentee ballots.
The tasks that once terrified her about her job now seem commonplace. Still, when she looks back to the time six years ago that she sat frozen in her car, wondering if she could run Central Count during a general election, she comes back to one theme.
“Sometimes when you're given no other choice, when there's no one else to do it, you just … do it.”
The nonprofit Wisconsin Watch (wisconsinwatch.org) collaborates with WPR, PBS Wisconsin, other news media and the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by Wisconsin Watch do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.