In Wisconsin, some harbor a lofty goal when they look at the remainder of the 2020 cycle: implementing a system by which voters cast their ballots almost entirely by mail.
But with both chambers of the Legislature controlled by Republicans who have signaled they’re not interested in a plan pushed by a handful of Democrats, the idea is essentially dead on arrival.
Even if the proposal had the backing of both political parties, though, there are a series of hurdles to putting it in place just three months before the August primary and six months before the November general election.
It’s no easy task to transition to a vote-by-mail system. Five states have done so, but it’s a big undertaking that, according to the federal Election Assistance Commission, includes more than 100 tasks that states would have had to begin last month to be on track for Nov. 3, according to a recent EAC project timeline.
And an election security expert with New York University Law School’s Brennan Center for Justice said Wisconsin “already has a great framework” in place given that it, like 29 others, allows voters to cast ballots by mail without providing a reason why they can't vote in person on election day.
The need for election officials in Wisconsin and around the country "to build up infrastructure necessary to quickly process the spike in absentee ballots that they’re going to see regardless of whether or not they change any laws or any procedures is going to be important,” said Elizabeth Howard, a counsel for the center’s Democracy Program and former deputy commissioner for the Virginia Department of Elections.
What would the Democratic bill do?
A group of Assembly Democrats are pushing the state to adopt a system by which the remainder of this year’s elections would be conducted primarily by mail.
Under the plan, introduced after the April 7 election, local clerks would send every registered voter an absentee ballot, which would need to be postmarked by election day to be counted. The proposal would also waive the requirement that most voters need a witness signature to submit their ballots. Voters wouldn’t need to show ID to cast ballots, either.
The bill would also extend the timeline to register to vote, and dole out $1 million in funding to cover costs for updating the state’s voter registration system to do so.
An additional $3 million would be set aside for a public information campaign to promote the vote-by-mail system, while the legislation would also create a sum sufficient funding stream to cover the costs of printing and postage across the state’s 1,850 municipal clerks.
Some of those costs were covered last month by the Wisconsin Elections Commission, which paid for “a significant number of envelopes” that were then sent to local clerks to meet increased demand. The commission also provided personal protective equipment and sanitation supplies to municipalities for the spring contests.
But local jurisdictions had to cover additional absentee postage costs, which average about $1 per voter for delivery and return postage. Those increases weren’t budgeted for, the commission noted in a memo, because “their budgets have traditionally focused on the historical need for in-person absentee and traditional election day polling places.”
What are politicians saying about it?
Backers, including Assembly Democratic Leader Gordon Hintz, argue the bill is necessary to boost accessibility and prevent confusion and long lines the state saw at a couple polling places on April 7.
“Forcing people to make the impossible choice between risking their health and exercising their right to vote is one of the most cynical things I’ve seen during my time in public service,” the Oshkosh Democrat said in a release. “During this public health crisis, it is important that we preserve and protect the fundamentals of our democracy.”
But Republicans point to the spring contests as evidence of “how flexible our system is” given that many who don’t usually vote by-mail were able to find a way to do so, Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke said last month.
“This idea that the system is broken and there’s no way to fix it is crazy,” the Kaukauna Republican told the Wisconsin State Journal, noting Wisconsin voters can already request a ballot if they want it.
How much would it cost?
The bill doesn’t yet have a fiscal note, which would estimate how costly the measure would be if implemented.
While it would set aside $4 million total for updating the state’s voter registration system and a public information campaign to promote the vote-by-mail system, local costs of printing and postage, which would be covered through a bottomless funding stream under the bill, are unknown.
Asked for comment about what those costs could look like locally, officials noted thousands of dollars in extra expenses that weren’t planned for.
For Madison, city finance director Dave Schmiedicke said mailing an absentee ballot to all registered voters is expected to cost $527,500 for the August primary election and $878,200 for the November general, costs he noted “are not budgeted."
And in Kenosha, the only other city where officials responded with projections, Clerk Debbie Salas said postage and supply costs for sending ballots to 80% of voters in November would be around $50,000, or double the normal cost.
For August, which she noted would see lower participation, the estimate is $8,000, which is also double the normal cost.
Such a change, Salas noted, would also require officials to bring on extra people to canvass the ballots.
What are other barriers to implementing a by-mail voting system?
Given that Wisconsin will see two statewide elections and one special congressional district one through the remainder of this cycle, the logistics and timing of pulling off such a move — even if the political will was shared — would be tough to overcome.
One big change would involve updating the state’s voter registration system to accommodate an extended registration timeline. But it’s unclear exactly how long that effort would take in Wisconsin.
A “vote by mail project timeline” from the federal Election Assistance Commission shows writing technical specifications and code, as well as testing it, could take 15 weeks total under an existing online voter registration system, which the state already has.
That means even if politicians came together on this plan and passed it by the end of May, it wouldn’t be until mid-September that those steps would be completed and the changes could go live, though the timeline also notes additional training for staff and likely iterations to get it in working order.
But there are a number of other considerations that the EAC timeline also highlights among its list of more than 100 tasks, many of which would fall on election officials.
One of them, not explicitly included in the bill, is an effort Elections Commission staff is already looking at: ballot tracking.
Staff are looking to spend some federal dollars under the national stimulus package enacted at the end of March to make “significant changes” to the voter registration database and MyVote Wisconsin to integrate new ballot tracking features. That includes adding intelligent bar codes allowing voters and elections officials to track ballots the same way other mail is; and incorporating those bar codes into each absentee ballot record on the WisVote system and MyVote Wisconsin site to provide “more transparency into the absentee process,” according to an April memo.
Wisconsin is expected to get around $7.3 million from the CARES Act.
The EAC timeline indicates contracting with a vendor and doing initial ballot tracking testing could take a couple of months.
Other steps not outlined in the bill could include setting up ballot drop boxes where people can securely leave their ballots for counting, including 24-hour boxes and drive-through drop-offs, as well as assembling ballot collection teams to regularly check the sites. Initial planning should have begun in April, according to the EAC timeline, while collections would continue through Election Day.
How does Wisconsin’s current by-mail system compare to other states?
Under the state’s current infrastructure, “Wisconsin is better situated than a lot of” others for a spike in by-mail voting, Howard of the Brennan Center said.
“Ohio prohibits distributing unsolicited absentee ballot applications, but you don’t face that same hurdle in Wisconsin,” she noted. “And again, Wisconsin is a ‘no-excuse state,’ so voters don’t have to qualify in order to cast an absentee ballot.”
Still, she cautioned that Wisconsin’s situation didn’t mean election officials aren’t “going to struggle when they try to operationalize processing this huge, huge spike.”
“Regardless of any law changes, what you saw in the primary is just proof that without any changes whatsoever, under the current legal and regulatory structure, absentee voting rates are spiking,” Howard said.
Last month, the state saw a 34% turnout rate, according to preliminary figures, putting it on par with the 2008 presidential primary. At least 71% of votes were cast absentee. In April 2016, that figure was at 10%, while November 2016 logged 27%.
Still, Howard acknowledged states that had been conducting primarily by-mail elections for years “are better prepared to handle a significant if not the entire population voting by mail than a state that has a traditionally exceptionally low absentee ballot turnout.”
Five states -- Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington -- send each of their voters a mail-home ballot directly, though most states have some sort of by-mail voting system in place.
Challenges in Wisconsin do exist for some seeking to vote absentee. For example, a witness signature is required to submit a by-mail ballot, which could be difficult to obtain for individuals living alone or those who are most at risk for COVID-19.
That’s true in 10 other states that either require one or two witnesses or a notary for those ballots to be valid, according to a Brennan Center breakdown.
Additionally, some clerks and Elections Commission officials had reported issues of individuals, including some older voters, lacking the technology to upload a copy of their voter ID online to request an absentee ballot.
Those who hadn’t requested one from their local clerk’s office since the state’s voter ID laws went into effect need to provide a photo, scan or copy of their ID.
Some would-be voters on April 7 also reported they hadn’t received their requested absentee ballots on time, requiring them to choose between not participating in the election or going in-person to vote.
Being able to vote in-person on Election Day, Howard said, is “critical” especially for “voters that have an issue when they try to vote by mail.”
Abby Becker contributed to this report.
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