MADISON — The Wisconsin Elections Commission voted Wednesday, May 27 to mail absentee ballot applications to most voters in the battleground state ahead of November's presidential election.
"This is great news for Wisconsin voters because it means that the paralysis of state government and the gridlock both in Madison and Washington is not affecting good government issues," said Mordecai Lee, professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
The vote came just a week after the panel split 3-3 along partisan lines on whether to mail the forms to nearly all registered voters, even if they hadn't requested one. Democrats favored the broad mailing, while Republicans were opposed.
Though the panel reached unanimous agreement Wednesday on the mailing to some 2.7 million registered voters, there's a potential hangup. The partisans must reach agreement on the wording of the mailing.
Democrats want the commission staff to word the letter, arguing that the divided commission might deadlock on the phrasing. Republicans said the commission members could work out differences in wording.
Republican Commissioner Bob Spindell accused Democrats on the commission of being afraid to tell recipients of other ways to vote than by absentee.
They will decide on the wording in June.
That might not be the only hurdle.
"Probably the biggest obstacle is going to be President Trump," said Lee. "I wouldn't be surprised if by tomorrow or by this weekend, he starts bashing Republicans on the commission for doing this."
Democrats in Wisconsin and nationally have advocated for more mail-in voting as a way to reduce the risk of catching COVID-19 from voting in person. Republicans have opposed expanding mail-in voting. President Donald Trump threatened to pull funding from states that have moved aggressively to get absentee ballots to all voters. President Trump has claimed, without evidence, that mail-in voting leads to “total election fraud.” His GOP allies, meanwhile, have fought changes to voting in court and opposed funding to expand mail-in voting in Congress.
Republican Scott Fitzgerald, the Wisconsin Senate's majority leader who is running for Congress, last week also spoke out against mailing absentee ballots to all voters.
Lee said this isn't a partisan issue.
"Political science research shows that neither Republicans or Democrats are automatically advantaged by voting by mail or by increased turnout," said Lee.
The mailing would send out the absentee ballot application form, not actual ballots. To receive a ballot, the voter must return the completed form with a copy of their photo ID. A paper form sent to the voter could be returned in the mail, but they would also receive information about how to request a ballot electronically through the state’s MyVote website.
Absentee voting surged in Wisconsin’s April 7 presidential primary and spring election, with nearly 1.2 million absentee ballots cast, or 74% of the total. Nearly a million of the people who voted absentee returned their ballots by mail rather than in person at a clerk’s office. State officials estimate that as many as 1.8 million voters could request absentee ballots for the November election, further straining state and local election officials.
The state has 3.4 million registered voters. About 528,000 have already requested absentees and the state believes about 158,000 have moved since they last voted; that leaves about 2.7 million people to be mailed absentee applications.
In an attempt to prepare for that expected surge in mail-in voting, the elections commission staff recommended using $5.3 million in federal coronavirus relief money to prepare. About $2.1 million would be used to send the absentee ballot application form to nearly all registered voters.
"In this situation, where it's so easy to vote by mail, we might bust 90% (turnout), which from the point of view of good government, is as good as we get, and it would be marvelous to have that happen," said Lee.
The plan also calls for sending information about voting to voters and offsetting mailing expenses incurred by local clerks. Commission staff originally recommended redesigning absentee ballot envelopes, but they said Wednesday that this change should be delayed until next year, citing concerns from clerks. The commission last week approved the spending of $500,000 for local election clerks to buy supplies, such as hand sanitizer, for upcoming elections.
The mailing would send out the absentee ballot application form, not actual ballots. To receive a ballot, the voter must return the completed form with a copy of their photo ID. A paper form sent to the voter could be returned in the mail, but they would also receive information about how to request a ballot electronically through the state's MyVote website.
Groups that advocate for the disabled and minorities filed a federal lawsuit this month asking a judge to order the commission to send absentee ballot applications to all voters ahead of the statewide August primary and November presidential elections. There are at least 15 lawsuits nationwide filed by Democrats seeking to force states to expand their absentee ballot programs.