'Very worried:' With primary in 46 days, Milwaukee Election Commission left with leadership hole

MILWAUKEE -- A leadership hole for the Milwaukee Election Commission remains unfilled, just 46 days away from another primary and in the midst of a pandemic that has already thrown elections into unfamiliar territory.  The current executive director, Neil Albrecht, tells FOX6 his last day is Tuesday, June 30.

That means three people who could have stepped in to the lead the commission are gone.

Alderman Michael Murphy

"I am very worried," said Milwaukee Alderman Michael Murphy. "This is a key election, a presidential election, and has major ramifications."

"We have seen across the country how individual counties or cities can be the tipping point for a state, and indirectly, for the country. I am very, very concerned."

Many months before Milwaukee's April election drew long lines and national attention, Albrecht, planned to retire from his position leading the election commission.

In May, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett picked Claire Woodall-Vogg to take over. On June 8, a Milwaukee Common Council committee approved, sending Woodall-Vogg's appointment to the full council.

Milwaukee City Hall

However, on June 16, the full Milwaukee Common Council unanimously sent all of Mayor Barrett's cabinet appointments  back to committee, wanting to hear their plans to move the city forward amid protests and calls for change.

Now, Woodall-Vogg tells them she is out.

Claire Woodall-Vogg

"Very disappointed. I think Claire was an excellent candidate," said Murphy.

Woodall-Vogg said she won't be subject to political grandstanding and that the delay has doubled her workload as she could not hire a new deputy director; two weeks ago, Albrecht's number two in command resigned.

Now, all three election officials are out.

FOX6 asked the mayor's office what comes next for the election commission. In a statement, he wrote:

"I know that there are a lot of issues that our community faces right now, and there’s a lot of unhappiness in many corners throughout the country. I think we all recognize that this is a very difficult time, and I know that the Council understands that. What I’m hopeful for, and optimistic, is that they will move forward promptly with all Cabinet members’ appointments, and treat them professionally through the confirmation process. That is extremely important to the smooth operation of City government.”

Once Mayor Barrett appoints a new executive director for the election commission, the Common Council will still need to approve; that process normally runs at least a month.

Alderman Bob Bauman said that is a "big problem."

"Barrett needs to step up immediately to identify a replacement," said Bauman. "Under normal process the Council would not be able to confirm a nominee until late July."

In response to FOX6's further inquiries, Mayor Barrett's spokeswoman says, "The Mayor will assemble a team to get the work of the Election Commission done."

Full statement from Woodall-Vogg to Council members:

Dear Council Members,

It is with mixed emotions that I inform you of my withdrawal for the appointment of executive director of the Election Commission.  I have been with the Election Commission for over seven years, giving it my all every day to make sure that voting is accessible to Milwaukeeans.  I respect and fully support the Council's desire for departments to come forward with clearly outlined plans on how we will work to improve equity for communities of color and to make programming decisions through an equity lens.  

However, holding my appointment has jeopardized my ability to lead and evolve the Election Commission.  Elections are administered by the hour and day, not by weeks.  I have always been proud of my unwavering work ethic, honesty and transparency.   Even when I briefly left my post at the Election Commission in 2019, I continued to work behind the scenes to support the staff during the special election last summer and to train new staff entering the department.  The advice given to me over the past week has been to be less transparent and honest in order to be appointed by Council and to survive this City’s political landscape.  My mentor told me to commit to continuing the worst and most challenging year of my life because this job will be worth it.

Meanwhile, the delay of the Council’s vote has more than doubled my own workload since I am unable to fill two management-level positions in a department of nine.  Our election worker recruitment and training program has been stagnant and “old school” (as Alderwoman Coggs described it) for the past decade.  I was prepared to make an immediate deputy director hire that would significantly strengthen the program and recruitment efforts, allowing us to operate as many voting sites as possible.  I cannot fill the position because my appointment is no longer certain.  Meanwhile, I continue to occupy the Business Systems Administrator position, another position that I had planned to immediately fill last week.

Access to voting is the most basic and universal human right in a democracy - or at least it should be.  My daily motivation has been to remove as many barriers to voting as possible despite every effort made by the legislature to block voting access.  The voting rights of minorities have been openly under attack for a solid decade in this state and have always held historic significance in our country. No member of this Council asked me what I have done or plan to do to counteract and remove the barriers and improve the voting rights of the citizens of Milwaukee - behind closed doors or at my hearing.  No one expressed any doubt about my commitment to the City or to ensuring that democracy is accessible to all citizens, especially those targeted and marginalized by systematic racism.  In fact, not a single committee member asked a question at my hearing. 

It is at this crossroads that I have made the decision to withdraw my candidacy.  I have planned and delayed the growth of my family, missed my father-in-law’s funeral, and sent my toddler to live with his grandparents out-of-state for 3 weeks during the most recent election so that I could work 18-hour days - all for a cause that I have always believed in. I no longer feel that my personal sacrifice, at the expense of my family, is worth it.  I will not make promises that I cannot keep, commit to projects that I cannot staff, or be subject to political grandstanding and scrutiny from Council members who have consistently refused to provide me with the common courtesy of a meeting or phone call over the past month to discuss my appointment and concerns with the department.

Claire Woodall-Vogg