The trend of voters casting absentee ballots has grown in recent years, and as the April 7 election took place amid the COVID-19 crisis, an unprecedented number of Wisconsinites mailed in their votes.

According to the Wisconsin Elections Commission, 1,098,489 absentee ballots were returned in April’s Presidential Primary Election. That’s compared with 819,316 in the November 2016 Presidential Election.

With the increasing numbers of absentee ballots posing challenges for poll workers, a bill is pending in the legislature to more efficiently process them, according to Curt Witynski, deputy director for the Wisconsin League of Municipalities.

Wisconsin’s election system is not set up for nearly exclusive absentee voting, with approximately 74 percent of ballots mailed in in April, Witynski said.

“Clerks are not allowed to count these as the come in,” he said.

Instead, they are sealed and placed in a vault until election day when they can be processed and tallied.

“So there’s all this activity that has to happen right after all the people vote in person,” Witynski said.

The bill pending in the legislature would make it easier for clerks to process absentee ballots using a machine to automatically tally them as they are received.

“The beauty of this process is you could feed that machine as the ballots come in,” Witynski said. When voters come in early to vote, and when they are received by mail, clerks could immediately feed the ballot into the machine.

The bill is pending in the Senate, which was scheduled to meet March 24 but had to cancel because of the coronavirus pandemic. The leadership did not want to take up a number of bills remotely because debating them virtually would be difficult, Witynski said. They did meet remotely to pass one bill, the pandemic bill, he said.

“We are waiting with hope that the Senate could come in over the summer or maybe not till fall and pass the legislation,” Witynski said.

In his role as a lobbyist for Wisconsin’s municipalities, Witynski said most of his members support the bill. Some county clerks wanted to see tweaks to it.

The hope is the bill can be passed prior to the Nov. 3 Presidential Election. But Witynski said passage of the bill would need to come a few months before to allow for election commission’s approval. A plan would need to be in place, and municipalities would need to purchase tallying machines.

“I don’t know what the likelihood is that we would have this in place for the November Election,” Witynski said.

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