MADISON – Nearly 200,000 voters dubbed themselves indefinitely confined for the April election, allowing them to cast absentee ballots without providing a photo ID.
Those voters will automatically receive absentee ballots this fall.
The spring election for state Supreme Court saw an unprecedented level of absentee voting as people tried to keep away from others because of the coronavirus outbreak spreading across the globe.
Of the nearly 1 million people who voted by mail, about 195,000 labeled themselves indefinitely confined, according to the Wisconsin Elections Commission. That’s more than 2½ times the nearly 72,000 who called themselves indefinitely confined in 2019.
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State law requires most voters to show a photo ID at the polls or provide a copy of one to a municipal clerk the first time they vote by mail. But there is an exception for those who say they are indefinitely confined because of age, illness, infirmity or disability.
State law leaves it up to voters to determine when they meet those criteria.
With voters under a stay-at-home order during the April 7 election, some labeled themselves indefinitely confined when they requested absentee ballots through the state’s online portal, myvote.wi.gov.
Once voters have been identified as confined, they automatically are sent absentee ballots for future elections. That continues until they don’t return an absentee ballot or they alert their clerk they are no longer confined.
As a result, those who called themselves confined in April are set to receive absentee ballots for the Aug. 11 primary and Nov. 3 presidential election.
A familiar flashpoint
Dean Knudson, the chairman of the state Elections Commission, said the law’s provision for confined voters was meant to ensure shut-ins could cast ballots. Now that the state is reopening, voters whose movement is no longer limited should change their status on the voting rolls, he said.
“I think they should follow the law and notify their clerk that they’re no longer indefinitely confined,” said Knudson, a Republican.
Ann Jacobs, a Democrat who sits on the bipartisan commission, said she was not surprised to see so many people had called themselves confined given the public health threat the coronavirus presents.
“An otherwise healthy person who is now basically housebound is indefinitely confined,” she said.
Some clerks are now getting in touch with voters to determine if they should still be considered confined. The state Elections Commission told clerks they could do that but advised them they “should do so using discretion and respect to voters’ privacy regarding their medical and disability status.”
Whether a voter qualifies as being confined to their home became a political flashpoint — and the subject of a lawsuit — this spring. It could remain one in the fall.
The clerks for Milwaukee and Dane counties told voters in March they could designate themselves as indefinitely confined if they were staying in their homes because of the pandemic and didn’t have the ability to provide a copy of their ID.
The state Republican Party sued over the issue and the Wisconsin Supreme Court quickly issued a unanimous decision saying all voters could not be considered confined just because Democratic Gov. Tony Evers had ordered people to stay at home except when they were conducting essential business.
The clerks revised their advice and the case is ongoing.
Soon after issuing its decision on confined voters, the high court struck down Evers’ stay-at-home order in a separate case. Milwaukee and some other communities have imposed their own orders to limit people’s movement.
Contact Patrick Marley at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @patrickdmarley.
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