Election officials are making major changes to the state’s absentee voting system after ballots failed to reach thousands of citizens in Wisconsin’s spring election, throwing an already chaotic election into further disarray amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Here is what the proposed changes will mean for Wisconsin voters.
What’s being changed?
The biggest change is that voters will be able to track precisely where their ballots are in the mail system.
Currently, the state-run election website MyVote shows voters the date their ballot was “sent.” That date actually reflects when the mailing label was generated, not the date a ballot was mailed. Milwaukee election officials said it sometimes took clerks another three to seven days to assemble and mail ballots due to severe backlogs.
In addition, officials have documented numerous mailing issues around the state, with absentee ballots being returned as undeliverable or turning up in mail processing centers after the election.
To solve this issue, Wisconsin Elections Commission spokesperson Reid Magney says officials will implement a new tracking system with the U.S. Postal Service.
The Intelligent Mail system will consist of a unique barcode on each envelope that will be scanned at each postal facility, allowing voters to track exactly where their ballot is in the system.
What if something is wrong with my ballot application? How will I know?
This was another issue during the election, according to Magney. At the time of the April 7 election, the application only asked for voters’ addresses, meaning that clerks were not able to easily contact voters to inform them about problems with their requests.
The elections commission is looking to change the absentee ballot request form to ask for voters’ phone numbers or email addresses.
That way, if something is wrong with your photo ID or registration information, clerks can reach out directly to get the problem fixed.
My clerk told me they were having technical issues. What’s going on there?
The election showed that Wisconsin’s labor-intensive and largely manual absentee ballot system buckled under the surge of ballot requests.
Currently, every absentee ballot application on MyVote is converted into an email. The state’s 1,850 municipal clerks are responsible for opening each email, verifying the attached photo ID, manually entering the information into the statewide voter registration system and printing or handwriting the mailing labels.
At times, the emails and attachments were so large that they slowed the entire system to a crawl.
The Wisconsin Elections Commission is moving away from the email system for the fall elections and will instead create a way for clerks to view and approve applications within the MyVote system. This should make the entire process faster and more automated, reducing system crashes and human error.
What about other changes, such as relaxing the witness signature requirement or sending ballot applications to all registered voters?
Many voting rights groups are calling for these changes, which are also the subject of a federal lawsuit filed this week.
Elections officials themselves met this week to debate the possibility of sending absentee ballot applications to all registered voters but delayed the decision.
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