Photo from Element5 Digital on Unsplash.
Yesterday the Wisconsin Elections Commission voted unanimously to send absentee ballot applications out to 2.7 million registered voters across Wisconsin.
The mailing would not include the over half a million registered voters who already request absentee ballots. Nor would it include more than 150,000 on the “movers list,” a group of voters who are flagged by Wisconsin’s registration system as having possibly moved.
During the spring election in April, over 1.3 million absentee ballots were sent to Wisconsin voters, which the elections commission described as unprecedented.
And the absentee ballots returned accounted for about 62 percent of the total votes cast. The increase was driven by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, as voters were urged to vote absentee and avoid the polls during the pandemic. Robert Kehoe, the commission’s technology director, said mailing ballot applications would free up local resources.
“Conducting a state-level mailing might allow some localities to redirect their time and energy away from their own mailings, that many of them are considering right now,” said Kehoe. “A final objective of the mailing concept is to reduce the workload for both clerks and commission staff later on this summer, and that’s based on our experiences this spring.”
Kehoe also said it would clear up confusion surrounding the vote by mail process.
“In March and April of this year, we all know that clerks processed an extraordinary number of ballot applications,” said Kehoe. “But they also handled an equally extraordinary number of voter telephone calls and emails asking questions. As one example, an exasperated clerk related to me that it seemed like every absentee application produced two phone calls: One to ask how to do it and then a second phone call to ask if they did it right.”
The mailing would include application forms, but not ballots. In order to receive a ballot, the recipient must return the form with a copy of a valid photo ID.
And the process would be paid for by about $2.3 million in federal Coronavirus relief specifically intended to help the state for election processes.
While the decision to send out the applications was unanimous, commissioners fought about how to decide the wording of the letter accompanying voter applications. The commission staff will draft the letter, and the commission itself argued about what to do after that. Commission member Ann Jacobs, a Democrat, argued that because time is of the essence, they should send out the letter the commission drafts unless there is bipartisan objection to how it is worded.
“Unless there’s four people who think there’s a problem with the letter-you got to get one person from the other party-if four people think that there’s a problem with the letter we bring it on the agenda,” said Jacobs. “But unless there’s four, it goes out as is so we don’t sit here and delay $2.2 million worth of assistance to our clerks. Otherwise, we’re going to wind up sitting here for three hours arguing over words that the staff will have spent time, energy, money, and the like putting together for us.”
Republican commission member Robert Spindell, meanwhile, accused the Democratic members of the commission of trying to improve the Democrats’ chances of winning the election.
“It seems to me that Commissioner Thompson and Ann are in the process of trying to push the Democratic agenda of an all mail-in election,” said Spindell. “We have three different ways in this state that you’re allowed to vote. One is by mail absentee, another one is by in-person on election day, and the third one is in-person absentee voting. And as I think you all know, the Republicans are better voting on election day than are the Democrats, and the Democrats are better at using mail absentee votes than the Republicans are. The letter needs to point out, in a very unbiased way, that there are three ways of voting.”
There is no conclusive evidence that primarily mail-only elections help Democratic candidates.
The commission will meet on June 10th to approve the final wording of the letter. Reid Magney, a spokesperson for the commission, said he believes this is important because it will inform all Wisconsinites about their voting options. Even those who might otherwise have problems voting absentee.
“While most people have access to a computer or a smart phone where they can make their request at our MyVote Wisconsin website, there are a lot of people, still, who don’t have computers, they’re not tech-savvy, they don’t have a smart phone, who may want to vote absentee,” said Magney. “And we want to make sure that they have the ability to do that.”