Wisconsin election officials to try again on mailing absentee ballot request forms to most voters

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MADISON – Wisconsin election officials will take a second swing Wednesday at whether to mail absentee ballot request forms to most voters this fall. 

Members of the bipartisan Wisconsin Elections Commission showed interest in the idea last week, but couldn’t reach consensus on who should receive ballot applications. They’ll make a second attempt at 4 p.m. Wednesday. 

Democrats on the commission want to send the applications to all or most registered voters. But the Republican chairman of the commission wants the state to mail them to a smaller group. 

The commission consists of three Democrats and three Republicans. A deadlock would mean the state does not send any ballot applications, leaving it to local governments to decide whether to send them. 

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The commission is not considering sending actual absentee ballots, but rather the forms voters can use to request them. If voters filled out those forms and sent their clerk a copy of a photo ID, they would receive an absentee ballot for the Nov. 3 presidential election. 

Mail voting surged to nearly 1 million in the April election for state Supreme Court as people tried to stay at home as much as possible during the coronavirus outbreak. Mail voting this fall is expected to surpass the record set in April.

How the election is conducted has increasingly taken on a partisan dimension, with President Donald Trump arguing without evidence that increasing mail voting will lead to fraud. Scott Fitzgerald, the state Senate majority leader and a Republican running for Congress, has come out against the absentee ballot proposal for Wisconsin.

But Dean Knudson, the Republican chairman of the commission, said he did not think the president’s stance would hamper the chances he could reach a deal with Democrats on the commission. 

MORE: Nearly 200,000 Wisconsin voters did not have to show a photo ID in the April election

The state has 3.4 million registered voters.

About 528,000 of them have already requested absentee ballots and the state believes about 158,000 of them have moved since they last voted. 

The commission’s staff has recommended sending the forms to the remaining registered voters — about 2.7 million people. At least one Democratic commissioner, Ann Jacobs, wants the applications to also go to those who may have moved to make sure as many registered voters get them as possible. 

Knudson does not want to have the state send the applications to people who live in communities that are already planning to send applications to their residents.

He also does not want them to go to those who have a photo ID on file with their local clerk, which suggests they have previously voted by mail. (State law requires voters to provide a copy of a photo ID the first time they vote by mail, but not other times they vote by mail.)

Knudson’s plan would reduce the number of people who are sent the forms to 2.2 million or fewer. 

Under the various proposals, voters would receive information about the state’s online portal for requesting absentee ballots, myvote.wi.gov, as well as a paper copy of the form they could use to get an absentee ballot.

Regardless of what the commission does, local governments can send applications to their voters. Whitefish Bay and Bayside did that in April and Milwaukee plans to do it this fall.

Having the state send the mailings would result in voters being treated more uniformly across Wisconsin. And it would save money for local governments. 

Mailings from the state would be covered using a $7.3 million grant that Congress gave Wisconsin to deal with higher election costs during the pandemic.

The mailings would cost $1.8 million to $2.8 million, depending on how many are sent. 

The commission plans to use the remaining funds for cleaning supplies and grants to local governments to help them cover their increased costs.

Forms could also go to voters who haven’t registered

The commission is also considering a separate plan that would send absentee ballot request forms to about 203,000 people who are eligible to vote but who are not registered to vote.

The state routinely contacts people who are not registered to vote to tell them how to do so and it is scheduled to send a new batch of them in June. Because of the increased interest in absentee voting, the commission is considering sending them ballot request forms along with information on how to register.

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

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