MADISON – A recent federal court decision will cut the in-person early voting period in half this fall in Wisconsin’s largest cities, but the effects of the ruling could be mitigated because so many people are turning to mail voting amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Republicans and Democrats alike said they believed the on-the-ground effects of the decision were tempered by the dramatic change in voter behavior. And Democrats and others who oppose the ruling said it would fire them up to make sure people vote this fall.
“It’s this ‘don’t get mad, get organizing’ kind of thing,” said Molly McGrath, a voting rights campaign strategist for the American Civil Liberties Union.
Interest in mail voting is exploding this fall, just as it did in the April election for a state Supreme Court justice race.
Nearly 60,000 Milwaukee residents have requested absentee ballots for the low-key Aug. 11 primary. That already surpasses the total number of people who voted in the August 2012 and August 2016 primaries, whether they voted at the polls, by mail or in person at an early-voting location.
The numbers will only go up in the coming weeks. The city is now sending a postcard to every household in Milwaukee explaining how to request an absentee ballot for the primary.
The figures will almost certainly be higher for the presidential election, when interest in voting is higher. The state plans to send absentee ballot request forms to most registered voters ahead of that election.
But those who want to vote early in person will have less time to do it. A unanimous decision last week from the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated early voting limits that had been suspended by a lower-court judge four years earlier.
Under the law that is now back in place, early voting can begin two weeks before election day and must stop by the Sunday before the election. That allows for up to 13 days of early voting.
The law leaves it up to communities to decide for themselves when during that period to allow early voting, and they can offer it at multiple locations if they would like.
The court ruling will have the most significant effect on the state’s urban centers because they have provided the most extensive early voting. Milwaukee, Madison and many of those other cities are also the most reliably Democratic parts of the state.
But partisan groups are less focused on in-person early voting this year because of the coronavirus. Joe Zepecki, a spokesman for the liberal voter mobilization group For Our Future, said the court ruling would have no practical effect on its turnout efforts.
“Our program is focused on ensuring the voters who will decide the presidential contest and legislative races across the state are voting in the safest way possible — absentee by mail,” he said in a statement.
Matt Batzel, executive director of American Majority Action, said his conservative group was urging supporters to request absentee ballots through the state’s online portal, just as it did in the Supreme Court election.
“I do continue to see increased interest in individuals requesting absentee ballots this cycle, which will help to ensure high voter turnout,” he said by email.
Mike Tate, a former chairman of the state Democratic Party, said the ruling was a setback but one he believed Democrats would overcome. He cited his party’s success at quickly getting supporters to vote by mail in April as a sign it can modify its plans to deal with a shorter early voting period.
“Every single time the other side has attempted to make it harder for Democrats to cast ballots, our side has out-organized and worked and adapted and often if not always succeeded when these changes are made,” he said.
Republican campaign strategist Mark Graul said he believed both parties would be effective at making sure their backers cast ballots.
“I don’t think it hurts anybody or necessarily helps anybody,” he said of the court decision. “What campaigns do is they adapt to situations.”
The shift to mail ballots this year likely will result in long-term changes to voter behavior, he said. Once voters see how easy it is to vote by mail, they’ll keep doing it, he predicted.
“All you have to do is spend literally three minutes online asking for a ballot and then it gets mailed to your house,” he said. “So I think that is a permanent change you were going to see that was going to come out of COVID, was a massive increase going forward of mail absentee voting.”
Big changes for Milwaukee, Madison
Milwaukee had planned to have four weeks of early voting for the November election, according to Claire Woodall-Vogg, the business systems administrator for the Milwaukee Election Commission.
The city had been planning a shorter period of early voting for the August primary, so those plans are not affected by the court decision. Early voting will run from July 28 to Aug. 9 at three locations — the Zeidler Municipal Building, 841 N. Broadway; Midtown Center, 5700 W. Capitol Drive; and Manitoba School, 4040 W. Forest Home Ave. The facilities will be open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on weekends.
Voting on election day will be offered at far more locations this fall compared with April, when just five of the city’s 180 polling sites were open. The city will have at least 160 polling places in August and possibly more than that in November, Woodall-Vogg said.
The court ruling will have a big effect in Madison, which has consistently offered the most robust early voting program in the state.
Madison had planned to offer early voting in the presidential election for six weeks in the clerk’s office and four weeks at other locations. That will now be reduced to two weeks because of the court decision.
It had to drop one day of early voting ahead of the August primary because of the court decision, City Clerk Maribeth Witzel-Behl said.
Madison, Milwaukee and many other Wisconsin communities offered curbside voting in the April election for state Supreme Court to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
More than 4,000 voters in Madison used curbside voting in April and the city plans to expand the program this fall. Curbside voting will be offered at a number of locations, including outside of churches on the two Sundays where early voting will be allowed, according to the city.
Voter registration postcards
The changes to early voting come amid a new push to register voters.
The Voter Participation Center is mailing voter registration applications to about 615,000 people who it believes are eligible to vote but not on the voter rolls. The group is focusing its efforts on young people, minorities and unmarried women.
The group’s board includes a member of the Democratic National Committee, a co-director of the liberal group Citizen Action/Illinois and an activist who worked on Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign.
Contact Patrick Marley at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @patrickdmarley.