In less than a month, Wisconsin polls will be open for people to cast their votes for who should lead the United States, represent them in Congress and the Wisconsin Senate and Legislature, and serve as county district attorney. According to the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC), the threat of COVID-19 has more people avoiding the lines at the polls on Nov. 3. Instead, the WEC is anticipating an unprecedented number of ballots will be mailed to voters.
However, with the ballot collection drive in Madison parks nearly two weeks ago, there has been some confusion on absentee voting. Namely, where ballots can be dropped off and when people can cast in-person absentee ballots.
Before someone can receive a requested mail-in absentee ballot, they need to be registered, which can be done through www.myvote.wi.gov. Town of Portland Clerk Nancy Thompson encourages voters to register as soon as possible. Those who choose to vote in-person are also encouraged to register or re-register online if necessary.
“Electors wanting to receive an absentee ballot should request such as soon as possible. Electors voting by absentee ballot should not wait until the last minute to mail that voted ballot back,” Thompson advised.
According to Marshall Clerk Lindsey Johnson, absentee voting by mail is simple. She said the WEC recommends people visit www.myvote.wi.gov to request an absentee ballot. These ballots can be sent to the local clerk as soon as it is completed.
City of Waterloo Clerk/Treasurer Mo Hanson posted the following steps on the city’s Facebook page to ensure all mail-in absentee ballots will be counted. This includes reading the step-by-step instruction letter sent with the ballot, sign the certificate enveloped marked with ‘signature of voter,’ have a witness sign the certificate envelope on the ‘signature by witness’ line. The witness must also supply their address underneath their signature.
According to the Facebook post, absentee ballots are rejected for the following reasons: lack of voter signature on absentee certificate envelope, lack of witness signature on absentee certificate envelope, lack of witness address on absentee certificate envelope, voter has not registered to vote at their current address, voter did not seal return envelope, and voter dies before election day.
According to the statement on the city’s Facebook page: “Our goal is for zero absentee ballots to be rejected at the polls.”
Johnson said per Wisconsin law, the absentee ballots have return postage provided for mailing the documents through the United States Postal Service.
Local municipalities may also have other designated ballot drop off locations. Johnson said Marshall has a clearly labeled drop box at the main entrance of the municipal building. It is the same box used for utility payments, dog licenses, etc. The drop box is available all day, every day. The city of Waterloo and Town of Medina also has a drop boxes available all day, every day, located at the main entry of the respective municipal buildings. The Town of Portland does not have a drop box at town hall, but they may arrange to drop off their absentee ballot with Thompson if they so desire.
Johnson explains once the clerk receives a mail-in absentee ballot, it is entered into WisVote, the statewide voter system.
“The voter can then track their ballot on MyVote to see when it has been returned to me. This also created a ballot history,” Johnson said. “The ballots are then placed in a secure space and opened on election day.”
Those who choose to vote absentee in-person can do so beginning Tuesday, Oct. 20. The village is recommending voters call before going to the municipal building to cast their ballot to ensure there is not a line or too much congestion to accommodate social distancing. Additionally, all voters are required to wear a mask inside the municipal building.
Once cast, the in-person absentee ballot is treated the same way a mail-in absentee ballot is processed.
Johnson said the day before polls open, she and the village’s chief election inspectors will assign voter numbers to each of the sealed absentee ballots. Those ballots will not be opened or put into the ballot counting machines until Election Day.
“This will help eliminate the amount of people standing in line in place of the absentee voters to process them,” she said. “This will also assist us for the end of the night. The first voters in the morning may be shocked to see that they aren’t ‘voter number 1.’”
People still have the option to vote in person on Nov. 3. Clerks said all COVID safety precautions used in the previous election will be in place for the November election.
“We understand that presidential election years always bring strong emotions out, especially this year. As with previous years, we will not tolerate inappropriate behavior at the polling place,” Johnson added. “As always, I thank our voters for being so patient and understanding on this extremely confusion election year.”
For those who may have concerns about the integrity of the voting process, Town of Medina Clerk Tammy Jordan said the election process is open for anyone to observe.
“From processing the absentee ballots, as they are requested, when they arrive at the Clerk’s office, all the way through the final canvas after the polls close. The whole process is very transparent. There are several checks that take place before a ballot is cast in the machine; by absentee or in person,” she said. “The town follows all of the rules and standards set by the Wisconsin Elections Commission. All of the town’s election workers are trained to do their specific jobs. The check system includes only one vote per registered voter, and is recorded in two identical poll books and each voter is given a number, in sequential order. This includes the absentee ballots.”
Clerks expecting surge in absentee votes
Municipal clerks are expecting an unprecedented number of absentee ballots. As of Friday, Johnson had issued 680 absentee ballots; 307 were returned. Hanson said that as of Thursday, the city received 501 absentee ballot requests. Jordan said as of Thursday, she received 370 requests and approximately 160 have been returned; of the returns, most have been left in the town’s drop box. For Portland, Thompson has sent out 139 requested absentee ballots and 45 have been returned as of Thursday.
During the Aug. 11 fall partisan primary, the WEC reported 836,494 absentee ballot requests were sent to clerks by Aug. 3. Clerks reported sending out 821,378 ballots and receiving 331,907 as of that day.
As of Sept. 30, WEC reported statewide approximately 1.2 million absentee ballots for the Nov. 3 general election had been requested; clerks sent out 1.18 million ballots and reported receiving 350,020. This is more than Statistics from the WEC website showed during the last presidential election, a total of 845,031 absentee ballots had been sent and 828,451 were returned as of Nov. 9, 2016.