After April's Election Difficulties, Would A Vote-At-Home System Make More Sense For Wisconsin?

May 22, 2020

Wisconsin’s April primary was problematic by any standard.

Voters in some locations stood in line for hours in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, thousands of absentee ballots either weren’t sent out or ended up lost in the mail and others were returned too late to be counted. 

As a battleground state sure to draw national attention for its August primary and again during the presidential election in November, could a more robust vote-at-home system help more voters safely cast their ballots? 

“I’m for whatever makes voting easy or convenient for the most amount of people,” said Milwaukee voter Jaime Wendt. “I think having vote-from-home is a good idea. It would be best if we had something like that with the option to vote in-person either on Election Day or vote early.”

Implementing such a system so quickly would be difficult even if the state's political leadership was willing to work together to make it happen. And there is ample evidence that Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and the state's GOP leadership — Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald — have a hard time doing much of anything together.

But after the fiasco of April's voting process in Wisconsin, and challenges elsewhere in the country, the tradition of voting at designated polling stations on a specific day and during specific hours is receiving renewed scrutiny.

A poll worker delivers water bottles to those standing in line at Marshall High School, one of the five in-person polling places in Milwaukee on April 7. Many voters complained about long lines and difficulty maintaining social distancing.
Credit Susan Bence

Where they are voting at home

Five states allow voters to cast their ballots from home in all of their elections: Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Utah. 

Those states send registered voters a ballot at least seven days before an election. The idea is for voters to fill it out at their convenience, and either mail it back or drop it off. States can offer voters the option of dropping it off at regional vote collection stations that replace traditional neighborhood polling places. 

Phil Kiesling, who served as Oregon secretary of state and helped implement vote-at-home in that state in 1998, said the system has lower costs overall and results in higher voter turnout.

“What we have learned is that in-person return options are the second half or the other side of the coin in our voting system,” Kiesling said. “The vote center idea, which I would argue is the other part of this revolution, is any voter within the county can go to any one of these vote centers and do anything that they could do at their official polling place." 

The key difference between traditional polling places and voter centers is that voters can drop off their ballots to any center that is close or convenient for them. Voters do not have to go to specific polling sites assigned to them.

“If Wisconsin had the chance and enough time to do it right, and the political ability to do it, Milwaukee, as an example, would’ve probably had 30 of these things,” Kiesling said. 

Wisconsin communities already are experimenting with different approaches to voting.

Whitefish Bay and Bayside sent out ballot applications to every voter during the April election and saw sky-high turnout. Roughly 60% of registered voters in Whitefish Bay cast an absentee ballot. Bayside had a similar result. Statewide, the average was half that.

After April’s vote, the Milwaukee Common Council voted unanimously to send out applications for an absentee ballot in the mail to all registered voters. And a lawsuit filed earlier this week by a disability rights group and others is asking a federal court to force state officials to take a variety of steps to ensure voters have a chance to cast ballots including mailing absentee ballot request forms to all registered voters.

Wisconsin election officials on Wednesday considered mailing absentee ballot request forms to voters this fall part of a broader $5.3 million plan to help local governments with elections. But while there was support for doing so on the bipartisan board, members couldn't agree on exactly who should get the forms.

One voter at Riverside High School in Milwaukee wanted to thank fellow voters, as well as bring attention to the real risks of voting in person.
Credit Marti Mikkelson

Some voting experts believe these are steps in the right direction and possibly a stepping stone to a vote-at-home system. But Audrey Kline, national policy director for the National Vote at Home Institute,  which advocates for at-home voting, said Wisconsin could make that transition even easier.

“That’s a little bit of a half measure, in that they’re taking sort of a half a step forward, you’re giving people a chance to sign up,” said Kline. “But it’s also half a step backwards in that when you do that, you create more work for election officials.”

Despite the meager number of polling places in Milwaukee and Green Bay, which resulted in long lines and made social distancing a challenge, voter turnout was still relatively high in Wisconsin. According to the Wisconsin Elections Commission, turnout for the spring election was a little more than 34% of the voting-age population.

“Even with the troubles we had here in Milwaukee … and other parts of the state, there were many people who were successfully able to vote absentee,” said Milwaukee voter Robert Schneider, who requested but never received an absentee ballot in the mail. “And I think under the circumstances, they did a very good job of getting absentee ballots counted in a very tough environment. So, with more advanced planning, we’ll be able to do it.” 

Schneider ultimately voted at Riverside High School during the April primary. 

Relatively high costs at first

While a vote-at-home system may be more efficient overall, the start-up costs of implementing such a system could be substantial.

“If the state wanted to really do a vote-by-mail system like those five states out West do, it would require lots of printing and postage costs upfront, millions of dollars,” said Barry Burden, UW-Madison political science professor. “Because all those states automatically send ballots to all their registered voters. That would be about 3.3 million ballots in Wisconsin.”

Oregon spends about 55 cents a ballot, Burden said. But, he said, the cost of vote-at-home is immensely cheaper over time than the cost of traditional polling. For one thing, the cost of poll workers is much lower. 

A 2016 study of Colorado from the Pew Charitable Trusts found that election costs decreased by an average of 40% in five administration-related categories. According to Kline, the five states that use vote-at-home exclusively save, on average, $2 to $5 per voter. Colorado is saving about $6 per voter, she said.

And so far, states that use vote-at-home have seen increases in voter turnout. In a 2019 study of Utah, 21 out of 29 counties conducted general elections by mail. Voter turnout in that 2016 election was 8.7 points higher in the counties that implemented vote-at-home than in those that had not. 

"If the state wanted to really do a vote-by-mail system like those five states out West do, it would require lots of printing and postage costs upfront, millions of dollars." - Barry Burden

In Colorado, a 2014 election study showed the vote-at-home option increased voter turnout by 3.3%. The Colorado study also showed an increase of voters ages 18 to 24 and an increase in voters of all races. Data shows that vote-at-home not only increases voter turnout, but it reaches more voters of all demographics, ensuring that more diverse voices are heard from in elections.

President Donald Trump has repeatedly tweeted his opposition to such plans — and just this week threatened to cut off federal funding to two states, Michigan and Nevada — over mail-voting. Trump and other Republicans have argued that a vote-at-home system has “tremendous potential for voter fraud.”

But advocacy groups such as the National Vote at Home Institute and the Brennan Center for Justice strongly dispute such claims.

“We’ve sort of been looking into the numbers recently; out of about 250 million ballots that have been sent out over the past 20 years, absentee ballots across the country, there were only 143 convicted cases of mail ballot fraud,” Kline said. “The numbers are insanely small.”

That doesn't mean there is no fraud — just very, very little of it.

“Fraud is extremely rare in elections as a whole,” Burden said. “It’s just exceptionally uncommon; it’s not a substantial problem. However, fraud is more likely to happen with ballots distributed by mail than with those that happen in person on Election Day.”

In Wauwatosa, poll workers sat behind large plexiglass dividers to help curb the spread of COVID-19 during the April 7 election.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

To combat voter fraud, some states have adopted intelligent bar codes that let voters track their ballots during the entire process, similar to tracking your latest delivery from Amazon. Although the bar codes have to be printed on specific paper and require special machines to read them, they’ve been successful in the states that have them such as Colorado.

Having intelligent bar codes for ballots would have been helpful during Wisconsin’s April primary.

“I think I like the idea of being able to track it,” said Wendt. “That’s really appealing, especially since we’re all so use to tracking packages and stuff. But I am a little skeptical that that is something we can implement because we didn’t have enough ballots for this [spring election].”

Concerns about permanent addresses

There are other concerns.

Sending ballots through the mail raises questions for voters without permanent addresses and those who may have trouble reading ballots.

“I guess I would worry about people who don’t have like addresses that are up-to-date, or an address that stays the same all the time, or people that would be disenfranchised by not having the capability of reading well,” said Milwaukee voter Meghan Kowalik. “For me myself, it works out fine, but I worry it leaves out a part of the population that should be having their voice heard.”   

"The most democratic thing we could do is try to get as many people who want the chance to vote, a chance to vote." - Milwaukee voter Robert Schneider

Whether Wisconsin could convert to a vote-at-home model by August — or even November — is questionable. Oregon has had 20 years of trial and error to get its system working well. And Wisconsin’s hyper-partisan politics may make the compromises — not to mention the funding needed — hard to come by.

Although some politicians have made voting a partisan issue, many voters don’t think it should be.

“This is about democracy and I want anybody who has an opposing view from me, to have as much chance to vote as I do if they want to vote,” Schneider said. “The most democratic thing we could do is try to get as many people who want the chance to vote, a chance to vote.”

This story has been supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.