The city of Milwaukee wants people to vote by mail in both the August and November elections. On Monday, the city sent out more than 250,000 voter information mailers to households explaining how to register online and request mail-in ballots. Officials are hoping to curb some of the difficulties with mail-in ballots that took place in the April spring election and presidential primary.
That includes difficulties faced by Synovia Moss. The lecturer at the UW-Milwaukee School of Continuing Education says she hasn’t missed an election for more than 30 years. She loves going to the polls on Election Day and wearing an "I voted" sticker. But due to concerns about the coronavirus pandemic and a pre-existing medical condition, she says it wasn’t safe in April.
“Several weeks prior to the primary, our entire household, we requested ballots and actually did not receive anything until the day after the election,” she says. Moss says she felt disenfranchised for the first time in her life.
To curb situations like this, the city of Milwaukee is sending voter information postcards to every household. The postcards steer people online to myvote.wi.gov to register to vote or request a mail-in ballot.
"That way we think, it's more efficient," says Alderwoman Marina Dimitrijevic. She spearheaded the SafeVote effort, which the common council passed unanimously.
The postcard also has the backing of the city’s head election official, newly appointed Claire Woodall-Vogg. She says unlike in April — when the city staffed just five large polling places — there will be 171 sites open for the partisan primary in August, and likely as many in November. But Woodall-Vogg stresses the safest way to vote in these times is by mail.
"And in order to do so you have to plan ahead," she explains. "So this postcard is to encourage residents who might need to update their address by doing a voter registration, not to wait till the last minute. And then to get as many city of Milwaukee residents signed up to receive an absentee ballot by mail."
Planning ahead is key. At least 65,000 ballots nationwide have been rejected in primaries this year because they arrived past the deadline — often, not by fault of the voter. Milwaukee is no exception, where some ballots weren’t counted because voters couldn’t get them to clerks in time. So, this fall, the city of Milwaukee has arranged additional drop-box sites for people who are getting close to the mail cut-off.
Voters can make sure their ballot is on its way to them by tracking ballots on the MyVote website.
"Now there's accountability within our office of seeing when we actually had your ballot hit the post office and then tracking it through the post office system. So if it says that it hit the post office a week ago and you still haven't received it, we want to reissue you a ballot," Woodall-Vogg says.
Voters can also track their ballots back to the clerk’s office.
Another hazard when voting by mail is that as soon as the voter drops the ballot in the mail, there’s little to no opportunity to correct mistakes. That’s according to Barry Burden, University of Wisconsin political science professor and head of the Elections Research Center.
"It’s not a random set of people who make those mistakes," he says. "It is often first-time voters or voters who have less experience or fewer resources to navigate the kind of bureaucracy that’s involved in the voting process."
People who need extra help registering and requesting mail-in ballots can call up election commission staff for assistance. Staff in Milwaukee can even witness and sign mail-in ballots.
Synovia Moss, the voter whose ballot arrived late in April, says a mail-based voter education campaign is a good step and could be supplemented with social media outreach.
"That they’re getting it in multiple sources, so that, again, the goal is to make sure that if a person chooses to vote by mail that their vote will count, that their vote matters," Moss says.
The city of Milwaukee isn’t the only entity sending out voter education materials. The state elections commission is mailing postcards to eligible but not registered voters. Later this fall, it will send out mail-in ballot request forms to 2.64 million registered voters.