Wisconsin clerks are running out of ballot envelopes as absentee voting surges

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MADISON – Wisconsin is running out of the envelopes used for absentee ballots as municipal clerks face a surge of requests to vote by mail in next month’s election because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Wisconsin Elections Commission estimates clerks are short about 600,000 envelopes for the fast-approaching election. More than one million envelopes are on their way so clerks can overcome the issue, according to the commission.   

Clerks are dealing with the issue because absentee voting is skyrocketing as the world wrestles with the pandemic. Health officials have advised people to work from home and Gov. Tony Evers has closed schools, bars and malls to curb the spread of the disease. He has banned gatherings of 10 people or more, though that edict does not apply to polling places.

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As of Friday, more than 380,000 Wisconsinites had requested absentee ballots. That’s far more than the nearly 250,000 absentee ballots cast in the 2016 presidential primary. 

“With the push to encourage absentee voting from various sources, clerks in many communities do not have enough absentee certificate envelopes for voters to use when returning their absentee ballot and in some cases are using envelopes intended for the fall elections,” Meagan Wolfe, executive director of the Elections Commission, wrote in a memo this week.

The state is expected to receive 1.2 million more envelopes on Wednesday to shore up the problem, according to the commission. The envelopes will be sent that day to county clerks, who will then distribute them to municipal clerks.

The April 7 ballot includes the presidential primary and races for state Supreme Court, Milwaukee mayor, Milwaukee County executive and other local offices. 

The number of absentee ballots requested so far is already far beyond the level of absentee voting in any spring election. 

RELATED: How to get an absentee ballot in Wisconsin during the coronavirus outbreak

The April record is just under 250,000 absentee ballots cast in 2016, when there were competitive presidential primaries in both parties.

This year, there may not be a competitive presidential primary in either party, with Joe Biden the apparent Democratic nominee and Bernie Sanders considering whether to stay in the race.

But absentee ballot requests are still rising at an unheard-of rate in the state, a byproduct of the coronavirus crisis. 

“People are hearing us when we say, ‘Please request an absentee ballot and do it soon,’” said Reid Magney, a spokesman for the Elections Commission.

“The types of surges we might have seen in absentee ballots issued in the past have been due to large numbers of people showing up in a clerk’s office or other satellite locations to vote early in big elections like April of 2016 or November of 2016,” he said. 

But this surge comes overwhelmingly from people requesting mail-in ballots, which have never been a significant component of the Wisconsin vote.

“This is something that we have not seen before,” Magney said.

As of Monday, the state had reported a cumulative total of 134,556 absentee ballot requests. By Friday, that had almost tripled, rising to a total 380,279.

Ballot requests in Dane County went from a total of 22,250 by Monday to a total of 67,878 by Friday.  In Milwaukee County, the total jumped from 24,235 by Monday to 62,644 by Friday. In Waukesha County, it rose from 13,077 to 38,817.

With more than two weeks to go before the election, ballot requests are rising at a staggering pace that could bring them much closer to November election levels.  Around 580,000 absentee ballots were cast in the November 2018 midterm elections and more than 800,000 were cast in the 2016 presidential race, but those numbers include a large number of in-person absentee ballots cast by voters at early-voting sites in their communities.

Mail-in voting has never accounted for a significant proportion of votes in Wisconsin. 

In the November 2018 elections, there were about 413,000 in-person absentee ballots cast, and about 166,000 mail-in absentee ballots cast — out of roughly 2.7 million votes.

In other words, mail-in voting accounted for only about 6% of the total vote. But mail-in voting is on track to account for a far higher share than that on April 7. 

That’s made it hard for clerks to keep up with demand.

Clerks have had trouble placing orders of their own because of a shortage of the paper supply used for the envelopes, according to the commission. While they are running low on envelopes, they are not short of ballots, according to the commission.

Absentee ballots require two envelopes — one to get the ballot to voters and one for voters to return them to clerks.

The return envelopes include a certificate on the outside of them that voters and witnesses must fill out. They’re designed in a way that allows clerks to keep track of who has voted while maintaining the secrecy of the ballots.

The layout is designed so the envelopes can be easily processed by postal equipment. Using other types of envelopes to return the ballots is possible, but there is a risk that different designs would not be properly read by postal equipment because the text on the voting certificate could be confused with the address on the envelope, according to the commission.

If clerks run out of the specialized envelopes, they should use blank ones, Wolfe has told clerks. 

Voters and clerks also have the option of emailing ballots to voters.

Voters who do that print a copy of the ballot and voting certificate. They fill out the ballot and place it in an envelope. Next, they fill sign the certificate and have a witness sign the certificate and fill in the witness’ address. They affix the certificate to the ballot envelope and then place the envelope into another envelope so they can mail it to their clerk.

In another sign of how clerks are responding to coronavirus, Madison began offering curbside voting Friday to those at high risk of contracting the illness. Voters can use four parking spots outside of the clerk’s office and election officials will bring them what they need to register to vote and cast ballots from their vehicles. 

Voters have until April 2 to request absentee ballots online or by mail, but clerks are asking people to make their requests well before then because they are so busy. 

Democrats have sued to loosen some absentee voting rules because of the pandemic. A federal judge is expected to issue a ruling soon

Contact Patrick Marley at patrick.marley@jrn.com. Follow him on Twitter at @patrickdmarley.

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