As of 7:30 this morning, state election officials report that more than 1,771,000 Wisconsinites have already cast their ballots in next week’s election.
About eighty percent of those ballots were cast through the mail, while about twenty percent were cast through in-person early voting.
But sending absentee ballots through the mail takes time, and ballots must be received by next Tuesday in order to be counted. Election officials have advised putting ballots in the mail by today, at the latest, in order for them to be received in time for election day.
And the discrepancy between when the ballots are sent and when they are received has been the centerpiece of state lawsuits, including one in Wisconsin. And yesterday, the US Supreme Court ruled not to grant a six-day extension for absentee ballots to be received.
In September, federal judge William Conley, who presides over the western district of Wisconsin, ruled that ballots postmarked by election day could still be counted if they are received six days after election day. Earlier this month, that ruling was suspended by a 2-1 decision from the 7th circuit appeals court, which presides over Wisconsin, Illinois, and Indiana. The Democratic National Committee challenged the decision at the Supreme Court level, which ultimately decided in a 5-3 decision that, under Wisconsin law, ballots must be received by November 3rd in order to be counted. Justice John Roberts sided with the conservative majority, which argued changing state election rules this close to an election violated precedent.
Meanwhile, the three liberal justices — Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayer and Elena Kagan — dissented, arguing that the decision would disenfranchise voters in the midst of a pandemic.
This decision comes a little over a week after the US Supreme Court ruled the opposite way in Pennsylvania — that time, allowing election officials to count absentee ballots received up to three days after election day. In that case, Justice John Roberts sided with the liberal justices, tying the decision and allowing the state supreme court’s decision to allow an extension to stay in place. Eleanor Powell, an associate professor of political science at UW-Madison, says that the court simply saw a difference between the two cases.
“The main distinction is that the court was dealing with, essentially, the underlying state election laws, and distinguishing the differences there to try to interpret what latitude there is and how the laws are structured,” said Powell. “The two state just have different existing election rules and they read the two situations differently. One can obviously see the parallels between them, but the justices decided otherwise.”
Powell says her primary concern is that there is the potential for enough ballots to be thrown out for it to affect the election. An extended deadline was in effect during Wisconsin’s April election. The representatives of the Democratic National Committee and civil rights groups that argued for the extension at the supreme court level said that the extension allowed about 80,000 ballots to be counted that otherwise would not have been. Reid Magney, the communications director for the Wisconsin Elections Commission, said that number was accurate, but the rules of the game haven’t changed for weeks
“All of our messaging since this spring has been that voters need to request their absentee ballots as soon as they can, and then as soon as people got their ballots, they needed to vote them, get them witnessed, and get them back as soon as possible,” said Magney. “That’s been, consistently, our message. We were on social media with that, I’ve done hundreds of interviews with radio stations and tv stations, newspapers, online sources. Our messaging has been consistent regardless of what’s been going on in the courts, or whatever. Get your ballot as soon as you can, vote it as soon as you can, get it back as soon as you can.”
Today is the recommended deadline for returning your absentee ballot through the mail. After today, opt to hand-deliver your absentee ballot to clerk’s office, or deliver it to your polling place on Election Day.
Voters in Madison can also opt to put their ballots in fourteen absentee dropboxes across the city.
Voters who haven’t mailed or returned their absentee ballot can also opt to vote in-person on election day.