Wisconsin Elections Commission stalls on pandemic election plan

Wisconsin Elections Commission stalls on pandemic election plan

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Wisconsin Elections commissioners stalled Wednesday on most of a controversial plan that would, among other things, send absentee ballot request forms to most registered voters who haven’t already requested a ballot for the November election.

Instead, commissioners will wait until after Memorial Day to determine what the bulk of a plan to deal with elections in the COVID-19 era should look like, and how to spend some of the $7.3 million in federal COVID-19 funding given to the commission to address challenges for the August and November elections.

Staff at the state agency had proposed using $5.3 million of the funding to not only send a mass mailing of absentee ballot request forms and information about voting options to 2.7 million Wisconsinites, but also to offset mailing expenses incurred by local clerks, redesign absentee ballot envelopes, and provide funding to secure sanitation supplies for upcoming elections.

During a teleconference meeting, commissioners did unanimously approve the portion of the plan allocating $500,000 to local clerks to secure sanitation supplies, such as hand sanitizer, for upcoming elections.

But the commissioners — three Republicans and three Democrats — deadlocked on the rest of the plan. The Republicans on the commission called for scaling back the absentee ballot request form proposal and doing away with some of the formulas to allocate the money, opting instead to send local clerks $3.4 million and giving them the discretion of how to spend it. The proposal would have left the remainder of the $7.3 million to be allocated later.

Democrats, who were in favor of most parts of the $5.3 million proposed plan, rejected the Republican proposal for now, saying they needed to see a more comprehensive picture of what the final Republican proposal would look like.

The commission may still end up approving a more targeted absentee ballot request form proposal that could possibly send forms to millions of registered voters.

Commission chairman Dean Knudson, a Republican, said he would be open to a plan that would send an absentee ballot request form to all registered voters except for those with an absentee ballot request on file, those still suspected of having moved, those who live in cities and towns that already have plans to send an absentee ballot request form, and the 1 million voters who already have a voter ID on file with the state.

Democrats expressed skepticism with some parts of that proposal, but indicated they may be able to work with much of it.

While voting by mail is controversial, political scientists say there’s no correlation between levels of absentee or mail voting and partisan advantage. President Donald Trump recently took issue with a plan in Michigan to send 7.7 million voters absentee ballot application forms. Trump falsely claimed Michigan did this “illegally,” and said he wanted to withhold federal funding from the state “if they want to go down this Voter Fraud path!”

Wisconsin Elections Commissioner Ann Jacobs, a Democrat, said she had major concerns with the commission’s proposal to redesign the absentee ballot envelopes, saying that there’s not enough time and doing so could introduce new errors.

The original plan from commission staff would have spent the money on a grant to offset mailing expenses incurred by local clerks due to increased absentee ballots, costing $2.6 million; a program to send an absentee ballot request form to registered voters who haven’t requested one for November, costing $2.1 million; a redesigned absentee ballot envelope to prevent mailing problems and increase usability, costing $133,320; and a program to fund cleaning and sanitation supplies needed for this year’s elections, costing $500,000, which commissioners approved.

The plan would use funds from The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act that Congress passed in March.

The plan to send an absentee ballot request form to most registered voters in the state in order to inform them about their voting options sparked the most controversy.

It’s similar to plans proposed in cities such as Milwaukee.

The mailing would include an explanation of how to request an absentee ballot through MyVote Wisconsin, the state’s online voter registration system, a paper absentee ballot request form as an alternative, and a business reply return envelope pre-addressed to the Wisconsin Elections Commission.

In addition to sending voters a request form, the plan would also somewhat centralize the processing of requests. The commission proposed hiring additional temporary staff or working with a data warehouse to receive the mailed forms and enter them into the online MyVote system, as well as scan in photo ID and other application materials. The goal is to alleviate the strain on local clerks who may again face unprecedented absentee ballot requests.

Clerks would still be responsible for ultimately approving the request. The process also would allow Elections Commission temporary staff to notify voters if the photo ID they submitted in their request was rejected, in order to free up clerks’ time.

Before the vote, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, urged commissioners to reject the absentee ballot request form proposal, citing concerns with centralizing absentee voting in Madison. He said such funding should instead go toward local clerks to help them hire extra staff and expand hours for early in-person absentee voting.

He also cited concerns with sending ballots to a voter list “that we know has not been cleaned up,” referring to the thousands of voters who may have moved, but remain on voters rolls. An attempt to purge those names from voting rolls is being litigated in state courts.

Elections challenges

Elections officials are anticipating numerous challenges for the August and November elections following the April 7 election that provided a test run of how to conduct an election in a pandemic. In that election, Wisconsinites requested absentee ballots in record numbers to avoid showing up at the polls and risking their health. State officials estimate as many as 1.8 million Wisconsinites could request an absentee ballot ahead of the November election.

Besides the potential demand, state elections officials want to stem other problems faced in April, such as trouble with mailing ballots, inefficient ballot processing, voter confusion, and the high costs of mailing more absentee ballots and providing proper sanitation for voters at the polls.

But despite record-setting absentee voting in April’s election, prompting concerns clerks would be overburdened and some votes left uncounted, a recent Elections Commission report showed the percentage of rejected or returned ballots in the April vote was consistent with previous elections.

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