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Politics & Government

Early Voting Begins in Wisconsin, With New Limits on Hours

Marti Mikkelson

Early voting begins Monday in city clerks’ offices across Wisconsin. Voters who can’t make it to the polls on Election Day will be able to cast ballots during the two weeks prior to the August 12 primary.

It’s the first election since Republicans who control the state legislature put limits on the process.

Under the changes, in-person absentee voting can only be conducted during the two business weeks prior to an election. Voting is limited to 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday, with no weekend hours allowed.

Supporters say the changes create a uniform process, while opponents argued the limits pose a challenge in large cities such as Milwaukee.

Milwaukee Election Commissioner Neil Albrecht says the new early voting rules represent a huge change from the presidential race of 2012. Scores of people lined up to vote at the Municipal Building during those two weeks, yet they were able to cast ballots on both weekend days, and even the day before the election.

Albrecht thinks primaries for state Assembly, Attorney General and Milwaukee County Sheriff will generate the most interest in August. But, he doesn’t anticipate any lines for early voting.

“For the most part, a voter will be able to walk in, be issued a ballot, and walk out within 10-12 minutes,” Albrecht says.

Yet, Albrecht predicts it will be a different story in November when voters turn out for the governor’s race. Polls show incumbent Gov. Scott Walker locked in a dead heat with his likely Democratic challenger, Mary Burke. Early voting will take place at the Municipal Building, and Albrecht says his office is planning for a huge turnout.

“We use the entire first floor of the Zeidler Building, it’s a pretty expansive space," Albrecht says. "We’re working right now to ensure that there’s sufficient parking and that there are sufficient voting stations and computer work stations and ballot collection points.” 

Albrecht says the goal is for nobody to wait in line for any longer than 20 minutes.

Another person gearing up for early voting is Brookfield City Clerk Kelly Michaels. She agrees, there might be a problem in November. Michaels has set Brookfield’s hours for 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, and says she won’t be able to extend them to 7 p.m.

“No, we still have to be within our budget and we have not budgeted overtime to do that," Michaels says. "I think if we were able to process 9,800 ballots during the presidential without incurring overtime, I think we can handle the November election as well.” 

Michaels says even though lines might form in November and hours will be limited, she doesn’t think anybody will be denied the opportunity to vote.

However, several activist groups remain upset about the changes to early voting, and are weighing whether to take action. Scot Ross, Executive Director of One Wisconsin Now, believes the changes amount to a deliberate attempt to disenfranchise certain voters.

“We are looking at this attack on the rights of predominantly people in cities and young people from being able to access early voting in the state of Wisconsin, something that in the past has helped us have amongst the highest voter turnouts in the nation,” Ross says.

Ross notes activists were successful in getting several courts to throw out Wisconsin’s Voter ID law. He says his group will spend the next few months looking at the impact of the early voting changes, and decide whether to challenge their constitutionality.

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