Madison poll workers will accept absentee ballots in parks this weekend, raising GOP concerns

Madison’s parks have become the latest fronts in Wisconsin’s voting wars.

The liberal stronghold is hosting “Democracy in the Park” events on Saturday at more than 200 locations across the city, where poll workers wearing yellow vests will assist voters in numerous ways.

They plan to help people register to vote, help them request absentee ballots, serve as witnesses for those who already have absentee ballots and accept those absentee ballots once they’re completed.

To Republicans, that risks looking too much like in-person early voting, which isn’t allowed under state law until Oct. 20.

Republicans and Democrats in Wisconsin have long fought over the state’s voter ID law and early voting, but their battles have intensified this year as voters turn to absentee voting in record numbers because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Also fueling the fight is Wisconsin’s battleground status in the race between President Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden. Trump narrowly won Wisconsin in 2016.

Late Friday, an attorney for Republican legislative leaders sent a letter to Madison’s clerk asking her to cancel Saturday’s event and warning that litigation may follow if ballots are collected in parks. He suggested ballots would not be adequately protected during the six-hour event.

“The threat that this procedure poses to ballot integrity is manifestly obvious,” wrote Misha Tseytlin, an attorney for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos of Rochester and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald of Juneau.

There are plenty of ways for voters to return their ballots, so “there could be no justification for this ad hoc, unsecure, and unlawful approach that your campaign appears to be creating,” Tseytlin wrote. 

Andrew Hitt, the chairman of the state Republican Party, raised similar concerns and said Republicans were recruiting volunteers to observe what happens in the parks.

“We want to make sure that these events don’t turn into illegal early vote sites or that any other violations of the law occur,” he said in a statement.

Madison City Clerk Maribeth Witzel-Behl said she wasn’t changing her plans. Ballots will be protected and will be secured in bags that are marked with tamper-evident seals that the city has used for more than a decade, she said.

Mike Haas, Madison’s city attorney and the former leader of the state Elections Commission, said the city’s plans are legal. The event does not qualify as a form of in-person early voting, he said.

“Ballots will not be distributed so it is fine,” Haas said by email.

Biden’s campaign has run a radio ad promoting the event, further frustrating Republicans.

Witzel-Behl said her office came up with the park plan and is running it on its own.

The event is being held in part because the city won’t install absentee ballot drop boxes until early October. Many voters have expressed reluctance to return their absentee ballots by mail because of recent problems with mail delivery.

“We thought if we got poll workers to be stationed in each city park it would be like a human drop box, only with the added benefit that the poll workers can verify for the voter that everything is complete on their envelope and answer any questions the voters might have about how are these absentees counted and what happens after this,” she said.

Kelly Michaels, the city clerk in Brookfield, said she has asked the Elections Commission to weigh in on the issue. She noted that witnesses are not supposed to simply sign the absentee ballot envelope, but also observe the voter filling out the ballot (without watching how they vote).

But Witzel-Behl said poll workers will serve as witnesses only if voters haven’t filled out their ballots yet. If they’ve already filled them out and sealed their envelopes, the poll workers will tell the voters to get the signature of someone who saw them fill out the ballot. If they didn’t have a witness, the poll worker will tell them how they can get a replacement ballot, she said.

Saturday’s event runs from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. in every Madison park. The poll workers will be wearing face masks, regularly sanitizing their hands and disinfecting pens and clipboards to prevent the spread of COVID-19, according to the city.

Municipal clerks around the state began sending more than 1 million absentee ballots to voters last week and will send more as new requests come in.

Absentee voting wasn’t popular in Wisconsin until this year, and clerks have been looking for creative ways to teach people about the process and encourage them to return ballots as soon as possible.

Milwaukee set up voting assistance stations in libraries to show people how to register to vote and request absentee ballots using the state’s myvote.wi.gov website. They’re also available to serve as witnesses. Those spots have drop boxes, so voters can submit their absentee ballots there.

So far, five to 20 voters have been stopping by at each of Milwaukee’s 13 locations each day, said Claire Woodall-Vogg, executive director of the Milwaukee Election Commission.

“I consider it a success that voters have in-person access to staff who can help them navigate the process,” Woodall-Vogg said by email. “Many voters have been delighted to see how easy MyVote is to navigate once our staff helps them, so it’s also a learning experience that we think will help voters adapt to new processes during the pandemic.”

The dispute over voting rules continues in other forums as well.

A federal judge on Monday extended deadlines for registering to vote and returning absentee ballots because of the pandemic, but his decision is being appealed. Other lawsuits over aspects of the election are pending.

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