In one of a "handful" of complaints statewide regarding pandemic safety at polling places, election judges at Wiscoy Township's sole precinct neglected to wear masks, the Minnesota Secretary of State confirmed.
Longtime elected officials Wiscoy Township Clerk Cassandra Waldo, who also served as Head Election Judge that day, Wiscoy Township Treasurer Dawn Kronebusch and a third poll worker unidentified by county officials were not wearing masks on Election Day, according to a photo from voter Kaitlyn O'Connor.
"We live in a pretty rural place, so I decided I was going to vote in person," O'Connor said, adding her decision was also prompted by concerns regarding the increased workload U.S. Postal Office workers were facing.
"When I walked in, the election judges weren’t wearing masks. And I was pretty surprised to see that," she said. "I was just kinda like, 'Hey, you guys aren’t wearing masks; you know there’s a pandemic and a mask mandate, right?'"
She continued: "'And they were like: 'Well that’s just your opinion.' I was like, 'It’s really not though; there’s 200,000 dead. It’s kind of a big deal.' And they kind of pushed back a little bit more, and I was just like, wow, I’m really disappointed to see that."
Waldo and Kronesbusch did not return calls requesting comment.
"It just made me feel a little uneasy," O'Connor said. "I would just imagine that if you’re going to step up and take that role in the community, that you’d have some consideration for public health. It was just disappointing, mostly."
Sandra Suchla, who oversees elections in Winona County, said she received one formal complaint, which included a copy of O'Connor's photo, regarding the incident.
That complaint was then turned over to the Winona County Attorney's Office.
"That complaint is under review by my office at this time. Once that review is completed, then we will determine whether further action is necessary and, if so, what is appropriate," Winona County Attorney Karin Sonneman said in an email.
Sonneman and Suchla did not respond to questions regarding what disciplinary actions are possible.
O'Connor said around three other voters were present when she spoke with the election judges. She and others proceeded to vote, despite her concerns regarding the lack of mask wearing.
"I can't imagine, if I was a person who was older, or immunocompromised ... if it that was your plan to vote and you felt like you couldn't walk into the building safely, well then there goes your options," she said. "If you were banking on things being OK, I could definitely see how that could change the mindset of a voter."
In the weeks since the election, Minnesota, along with the rest of the country, has seen a massive surge of coronavirus cases, with hospitals nearing capacity and a shortage of healthcare workers as thousands are fighting COVID-19, quarantining because of exposure or caring for family, officials told Minnesotans last week.
"Don't call healthcare workers heroes if you can't put a piece of cloth or paper over your face to protect them," said Dr. Cindy Firkins Smith, president and co-CEO at Willmar-based Carris Health last week. "We're begging you. Please, wear a mask. Socially distance. Wash your hands. Protect yourself so we can protect you."
The Minnesota chapter of the nonpartisan voter's rights nonprofit Common Cause condemned the election judges' behavior, pointing to Gov. Tim Walz's statewide mandate that went into effect July 2020.
"This mandate required Minnesotans to wear face masks indoors to slow the spread of COVID-19 and prevent a second surge of hospitalizations and deaths. As of Nov. 3, we've been in the middle of an increasingly growing and concerning surge," wrote Common Cause Minnesota executive director Annastacia Belladona-Carrera in a statement. "We take this report seriously and have taken it under advisement. Common Cause MN will be following up with the reporting of this incident with all relevant offices until the matter is addressed and parties are appropriately held accountable."
Both poll workers and voters were required to wear face masks while voting in-person early and on Nov. 3. Curbside voting was offered for anyone who had health concerns or who did not wish to wear a mask.
Around a "handful" of complaints regarding lack of mask wearing at polling places statewide were reported to the Minnesota Secretary of State, and the majority of those occurred during early voting, according to communications director Risikat Adesaogun.
Because this particular incident was reported close to the end of polling hours, the state SOS did not attempt to intervene, Adesaogun said, adding that enforcement of polling place rules lies on the township and county.
Wiscoy Township Board Chairperson Kevin O'Brien said he was unsure what action, if any, the township was capable of taking.
"I think there’s a feeling that: 'Oh, some people are trying to do voter suppression,' and I do not believe that was their intent at all," he said.
Still, he said, the judges broke protocol that could have put themselves and others at risk of catching the coronavirus.
"You don't know what impact not wearing a mask could have," he said. "[Election judges] should be following the rules ... I think it’s important that people always err to the side of the people who want to feel safe. And if they’re coming in to vote, I think it’s important that people do feel safe."
Larisa Walk, who has served as an election judge in Wiscoy since the '90s, said she decided not to return this year when Waldo told her she would not be wearing a mask or enforcing the mandate at the precinct.
"I was embarrassed for our township after having worked for an election judge for so many years, and making an effort to do a really good job with elections," she said. "I think it shows a degree of disregard or contempt for your fellow citizens ... When you're a public official, and when you're hired to be an election judge, you’re working in the capacity of representing the public ... You don't get to have your own personal opinions; you follow the rules."
Per Minnesota state law, in townships, the board of supervisors is required to approve who becomes an election judge in part to ensure party balance among the judges, which are taxpayer-funded positions.
O'Brien said he did not recall the board approving the positions this year and did not know the person, who is not an elected official, who took Walk's place.
The Wiscoy Township Board meets monthly. Photos of the printed minutes from meetings since July, only available to the public at the town hall unless a resident signs up for an email, show no record of the board approving election judges.
The Wiscoy Township Board consists of three voting members: the chair, O'Brien, and two supervisors: Chad Steinfeld and Marty Waldo, who is Cassondra Waldo's husband.
Cassondra Waldo's and Kronebusch's elected positions of clerk and treasurer, respectively, are not voting positions on the board.
"We’re still very divided politically as is everyone else," Walk said of Wiscoy. "I think it’s just typical of what we’re seeing across the United States ... I think the divisions are deeper this time around."