MADISON – Democrats and Republicans alike are urging their supporters to vote by mail this fall — and trying to get the more than 1 million Wisconsin voters who have already requested absentee ballots to return them as soon as possible.
Absentee voting is normally a small feature of Wisconsin elections, but it has become a pillar of the presidential campaign this fall because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Leaders of both parties say they’re keyed into finding the voting method that each supporter likes best and making sure that voter’s ballot gets cast.
The situation is tricky for Republicans because President Donald Trump has raised suspicions about voting by mail. But GOP leaders say they are confident their backers will take advantage of the state’s absentee voting program.
“It’s up to the voter as to what they’re comfortable with. So if someone wants to vote by absentee, we’ll know and we’ll chase them down,” said Andrew Iverson, the state director for Trump Victory, a joint operation of Trump’s reelection campaign and the Republican National Committee.
Republicans are contacting voters with text messages, social media posts, mail and visits to their doors.
“All of the above,” Iverson said. “All hands on deck with this effort.”
Ben Wikler, the chairman of the state Democratic Party, said his team has been walking voters through the steps they need to take to vote by mail for Democratic nominee Joe Biden. They’re also helping voters put together plans if they prefer to vote in person, he said.
“For our organizers and our voter protection team, there is a sense that we are tech support for democracy, helping people do the thing that they want to do, which is to exercise their franchise even though the operating system has been upgraded,” he said.
Wisconsin’s bipartisan Elections Commission sent absentee ballot applications to nearly 2.7 million voters this month, but even before then people had been flocking to absentee voting. As of Tuesday, about 1.1 million voters had requested absentee ballots, according to state records.
That’s far above typical elections. About 964,000 people voted absentee in the April election for state Supreme Court, setting a record. That record is expected to be broken this fall.
Leaders from both parties — as well as election clerks — are urging voters to return their absentee ballots as soon as possible to make sure they get counted.
Ordinarily, ballots must be in clerks’ hands by the time polls close on Nov. 3 to be counted. A federal judge ruled Monday that he would allow absentee ballots that are postmarked by Nov. 3 to be counted if they arrive by Nov. 9, but that ruling could change on appeal.
Wikler called the April election a “full-scale dress rehearsal” for the fall campaign. Democrats turned their attention to mail voting in the spring and the Supreme Court candidate they backed, Jill Karofsky, won her race.
He said Democrats had refined their mail voting program since then and questioned whether Republicans could match it in light of Trump’s questioning of mail voting.
“Trump is putting his supporters into an impossible position where many of them, they no longer trust a trustworthy system for absentee voting and yet they may also be concerned about going into an in-person polling place,” Wikler said.
“Trump is narrowing the options for his supporters rather than expanding them. And that I think undercuts his own electoral path.”
Former U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy disputed that assessment, saying Democrats were simply getting voters who already supported them to vote in a different manner.
“They’re getting early votes, but these are folks who would have voted on election day anyway,” said Duffy, a Republican who represented northern Wisconsin for nearly a decade. “So, yes, they’re banking the vote early, but they’re not growing the vote.”
Trump’s supporters will come out to vote, even if COVID-19 cases surge near election day, he said.
“The Trump voter is going to be hellbent on showing up,” he said. “Maybe they’ll put on two masks and maybe a face shield, but they’re going to vote. But for the Biden voter, if they didn’t bank it now it very well may not come in on Nov. 3 because of fear of COVID.”
Duffy said he would likely vote in person, even as he encourages others to vote absentee.
“Do I get concerned with early voting and opportunities for fraud? Yes,” he said.
“But I think we have to recognize these are the rules. So we’re not changing the rules, so let’s go out there and play with these rules. But that doesn’t mean I don’t get concerned by the early voting. I do.”
Election experts have found voter fraud is rare, but Duffy said early voting and mail voting concern him because ballots that have been filled out are handled by mail carriers and election clerks before they are fed into tabulators.
Clayton Henson, a regional coordinator for Trump’s campaign, said Republicans want the president’s supporters to vote in whatever manner they like best. He did not express any concerns about the potential for fraud in Wisconsin’s voting system.
“I think you’ve got a great system in Wisconsin and we’re going to get people to vote absentee, on election day and in early voting,” he said.
Voters can request absentee ballots at myvote.wi.gov or by contacting their municipal clerk. In-person early voting begins Oct. 20.
Contact Patrick Marley at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @patrickdmarley.