Media was denied access to enter the Alumni Memorial Union to observe the process of voting at its polling site Tuesday.
“Due to COVID precautions, the AMU is closed to media on Election Day,” the sign on the doors read.
University spokesperson Chris Stolarski said to help mitigate the spread of the coronavirus on campus, the university asked media to conduct interviews and stand-ups outside the AMU to limit the number of people inside the building.
“This is to help protect the health and safety of students, voters, poll workers and university employees inside the AMU,” Stolarski said in an email. “The purpose of us hosting a polling site is to facilitate voting — voter access is the priority.”
Marquette University Police Department Assistant Chief Jeff Kranz said the university has the ability to say press cannot go inside the AMU as the building is “private property.”
However, Milwaukee County elections director Julietta Henry said press is not allowed to be limited outside of polling places on Election Day.
“It is public work, anyone can observe the process (of voting),” Henry said.
After being informed of the signs on the doors of the AMU, Henry contacted the City. The City asked the university to take the signs down so press could observe the process of voting.
Designated areas were then made available in the AMU Ballrooms for the press to cover the polling process in order to protect ballot and voter security.
“In talking with the election inspector, we were comfortable moving forward with it … to keep the moving and nonmoving traffic low,” Kevin Conway, university associate director of communication, said. “The Wisconsin Elections Committee didn’t have any problems with it so that’s why we were comfortable moving forward with it.”
Megan Wolfe, Wisconsin chief election official, said she was aware of the sign denying media from inside the AMU at Marquette and knew of its removal as well.
“It gets tricky when you’re navigating private spaces and navigating the rules that they have for their spaces,” Wolfe said. “Each polling place is allowed to set how many observers they’re willing to allow in … it’s certainly an interest of transparency at our polling places is a good idea if (the media is) able to do it without causing a disturbance or jeopardizing anyone ability to social distance.”
Ray Dall’Osto, an attorney with Gimbel, Reilly, Guerin & Brown LLP in Milwaukee, said observers and media should have been able to get inside of the AMU from the beginning.
“The polling place is public,” Dall’Osto said. “Even though on private property, it’s a public facility.”
Dall’Osto practices in the areas of defense of regulatory investigations, professional discipline defense, ethics and licensing matters, civil litigation, personal injury, employment and constitutional rights. He is a Marquette alum and previously was legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin.
At polling places, people are not allowed to take pictures of voters before or while they are voting. Dall’Osto said that perhaps Marquette’s signage earlier in the day was to implement that rule.
“The law and the rule is is you can’t take pictures,” Dall’Osto said.
He said if that was the case, that would be a reasonable rule for voter privacy.
Still, Marquette cannot deny media the ability to enter a public polling place on election day even if they are a private institution.
“They can get overzealous sometimes, but you got to fight back,” Dall’Osto said.
Matt Yeazel contributed to this report.
This story was written by Benjamin Wells and Natallie St. Onge. They can be reached at email@example.com. and firstname.lastname@example.org