Wisconsin Elections Commission Split On Mailing Absentee Ballot Applications

May 21, 2020

The Wisconsin Elections Commission is trying to set the stage for smooth elections in August and November after a chaotic experience in April.

The spring election and presidential primary saw a massive spike in absentee voting by mail. Many people didn’t want to cast ballots in person due to the coronavirus.

At a virtual meeting Wednesday, Wisconsin Elections Commission Technology Director Rob Kehoe talked about how the big shift to mail voting stressed Wisconsin’s systems. He said not only were local clerks overwhelmed, but thousands of ballots went uncounted in parts of the state.

"The problems reported in these areas suggest that several thousand ballots encountered an issue while in transit that may have delayed or prevented delivery," Kehoe said. "Ballots were found in the postal system after Election Day. Ballots were returned to clerks without explanation. And some ballots never reached their destination."

Municipalities also had problems finding enough workers for in-person voting. But the issue the commission is focusing on is how to better prepare for possible sky-high absentee voting levels in August and November.

The commission received about $7 million in federal money from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act to facilitate safe elections during the pandemic.

A polling place in Wauwatosa had a barrier between poll workers and voters on April 7.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

One idea is to mail absentee ballot requests and guidelines to every registered voter who hasn’t already submitted a request — that’s about 2.7 million people. The mailer would include instructions about how to request a ballot online or return the printed request by mail.  

"We believe it would be beneficial to send the mailing with as much lead time as possible for voters to be able to make their decision before [the] August election and again ease some of the burden for clerks before we head into the fall," said Commission Administrator Meagan Wolfe. "The more data we know about who is going to participate by mail versus in person ahead of time, the better prepared we can all be."

The elections commission is made up of three Democrats and three Republicans. Members from both sides seemed receptive to mailing absentee ballot requests to voters. But they disagree on some of the details.

Chair Dean Knudson, a Republican, wants to cut down the number of voters who receive mailers. Knudson said they should not be sent to voters who already have a photo ID on file in the elections system because that means they’ve voted absentee before and know how to do it.

"By narrowing it down you’ll accomplish the consensus idea, which is people who haven’t done this before, we want to try to help them do it," Knudson said. 

A commission staffer said if you eliminate people who already have a photo ID in the system, that would mean a reduction of more than 1 million mailers that would need be sent.

Commission member Ann Jacobs, a Democrat, argued that just because someone has an ID on file doesn’t mean they’ve voted absentee recently.

"I think you’re conflating [having an ID on file] with people who currently know how to request an absentee ballot, which may not be a jump you can make," Jacobs said. "Because we’ve changed how we request absentee ballots very dramatically over the past few years."

The commission is also considering whether to use barcodes to track absentee ballots, whether to redesign the ballot envelope to make it more user-friendly, and how to best offset local municipalities’ election costs.

Members decided they needed more time to think about all the options. They postponed a decision on changing absentee voting procedures until next week.