With more than 100,000 voters requesting absentee ballots in Dane County — so far — during the coronavirus pandemic, many are sure to be voting by mail for the first time in this spring’s election.
Though the process itself isn’t difficult, one step of it — requiring a witness to sign and address the absentee certificate envelope before the voter sends it back to their local clerk — might cause some trip-ups, especially for those who are self-quarantining and social distancing.
Wisconsin Elections Commission spokesman Reid Magney said that part is “the big issue” for voters who aren’t casting in-person ballots.
“That’s the one where technical errors could threaten somebody’s right to vote,” he said.
So how do voters ensure they’re appropriately registered when requesting absentee ballots, and then accurately and completely filling out their forms before mailing them in?
Below is information covering that entire process, from obtaining ballots to returning them to a local clerk’s office to be counted on Election Day, April 7.
Registering to vote
Voters can use myvote.wi.gov to see if they're able to cast ballots in Wisconsin elections. On the website, select "Register to Vote," and enter your first name, last name and date of birth before hitting "search."
If you're already in the system, information will pop up listing your full name, status ("registered" or not) and the address where you're registered. If the information listed is current, you’re good to go.
If not, voters are able to continue registering online until 11:59 p.m. on March 30 after a federal judge last week reinstated the system to provide more flexibility to individuals seeking to cast ballots in the election amid the coronavirus outbreak. The original deadline to register was last week, as laid out in state law.
While individuals now have extra time to register online, Magney with the state Elections Commission urged prospective voters not to wait until the last minute.
“Anybody who waits for a deadline to do something for this election risks potentially having their vote not counted because in these times, you can’t guarantee how quickly an overwhelmed clerk’s office will be able to get out an absentee ballot request even if it’s made by the deadline,” he said.
Madison residents are also able to register to vote in-person through the local clerk's curbside voting program until April 3 (more on that later) or in-person on April 7, assuming polling locations remain open across the state.
Requesting a ballot
To request an absentee ballot, voters can also use myvote.wi.gov or contact their municipal clerk’s office with their name, registration address, mailing address (if it’s different than their registration one) and elections for which they want a ballot.
Madison City Clerk Maribeth Witzel-Behl said interested voters shouldn’t send postage stamps or self-addressed stamped envelopes to the clerk’s office along with their request, as all that is provided by the city.
She also noted that those who haven’t had the Clerk’s Office mail them a ballot since the state’s voter ID laws went into effect would need to provide a photo, scan or copy of their voter ID as well. She stressed that “selfies do not work.”
Voters must request an absentee ballot by Thursday, April 2, though the Elections Commission suggests doing so as soon as possible.
What to do when your ballot arrives
Once you get your ballot in the mail, make sure you have both the ballot and the absentee certificate envelope so you can return it to your local clerk’s office.
Voters must fill out their ballots in the presence of one witness to verify the individual completed their ballot. A witness must be a U.S. citizen who is at least 18 years old and isn’t a candidate in the election.
Once the ballot is filled out, the witness needs to sign the absentee certificate envelope and provide their address, and the voter also has to sign and date it. Then the voter can mail the ballot, in the return envelope, back to their clerk.
Spouses, significant others and roommates can all act as witnesses.
But obtaining a witness signature during a period of self-quarantining and social distancing could be especially tricky for individuals who live alone or are at a greater risk of COVID-19.
Magney said Elections Commission officials are encouraging voters to “be creative” during this time.
For example, he said individuals can use FaceTime or Skype so a witness can watch them fill out their ballot, or have the witness come to their home and observe them through a window. Then, the voter could leave the envelope outside the home, such as on a porch, for the witness to pick up, sign and address.
Those with cars could also meet somewhere, park next to each other, put gloves on and pass the ballots at arm’s length through the car windows, he said.
In Madison, Witzel-Behl said she’s “heard from a lot of voters who live alone and are confined to their homes due to the pandemic” and thus have no one to serve as their witness.
But she said there are a number of Dane County organizations that are stepping up to fill that void, such as the Dane County Voter ID Coalition (phone: (608) 285-2141) and the League of Women Voters of Dane County. Older adults in Madison could also call NewBridge for help at (608) 512-0000.
The deadline for clerks to receive absentee ballots is 8 p.m. on Election Day, April 7, by the U.S. Postal Service recommends allowing for a delivery time of one week. Ballots cannot be returned to the clerk by fax or email.
In-person absentee voting
Madison residents have just one option for voting in-person ahead of the April 7 election: curbside voting.
While the city previously allowed individuals to fill out their ballots in the City-County Building and Madison Municipal Building, those sites are no longer in-use, according to the city clerk’s office.
Instead, in-person absentee voting has moved curbside stemming from the social distancing requirements and other COVID-19 precautions.
Curbside voting is available weekdays from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. through April 3. Those interested can register to vote and cast ballots from their vehicles.
Those interested should use four parking spots available on Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd. outside the City-County Building and the Madison Municipal Building.
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