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Wisconsin groups tweak voter outreach strategies to address COVID-19 crisis, misinformation

Wisconsin groups tweak voter outreach strategies to address COVID-19 crisis, misinformation

WI Spring Election 040720 03-04072020145510 (copy)

Cautious not to touch the book drop at the Madison Public Library's Sequoia Branch, a voter deposits an absentee ballot on April 7. Groups have sought to educate Wisconsinites about how to vote by-mail amid the COVID-19 pandemic as they've fielded questions and misinformation about the process. 

Back in March, when officials from the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay announced that in-person classes would be  at that time  temporarily halted, one local voting group was stationed on campus to get the word out about the upcoming April 7 election. 

But as the response to COVID-19 evolved, the Coalition of Voting Organizations Brown County quickly changed course from registering voters to helping students request absentee ballots. 

“The decision came out while we were there that the students would not be returning,” co-leader Charlotte Goska said. “We’ve always kind of helped people with absentee ballots but not so much on the college campus because their polling place is right there but we switched gears immediately and started telling students, ‘let’s get your absentee ballot while we’re at it.’”

COVO Brown County was founded after the state put into place a 2016 law allowing online voter registration but eliminating special registration deputies, or individuals deputized by election clerks to help civic groups conduct registration drives. The organization, Goska said, seeks to "fill a gap." 

"This is a total change for us," Goska said of the group, which began in January 2017. "We’ve been really focused on in-person events, face to face helping voters who may not be reached by other means. We’ve been in the community for the last few years just meeting people where they are." 

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The organization isn’t the only one that’s had to adjust and often invent strategies in light of the COVID-19 crisis to replace what would normally be months of in-person events getting information to voters about ID and residency requirements and helping them register to vote. 

But for the first six months of the year, COVO Brown County saw the number of new voter registrations lagging behind what the group logged over the same period in 2018, the first election cycle the group was in existence. 

From January through June of this year, the organization had 187 new registrations; in 2018, that number was 262, Goska said.

Across the country, 11 states and the District of Columbia have seen lower registration figures too, a recent analysis from FiveThirtyEight found. When comparing 2020 figures with 2016, the report showed new voter registrations this year outpaced those of 2016 in January and February, but dropped off in March, coinciding with the pandemic’s deepening impact on the U.S. 

In the places where data was collected about how people registered to vote, the report showed in-person registration made up a large plurality or majority of new registrants in both 2016 and the early months of 2020. But after government offices closed and registrations dwindled, online or by-mail registrations held relatively steady, FiveThirtyEight reported.

The Wisconsin Elections Commission doesn’t make publicly available the number of new voter registrations it logs month to month. Rather, the state releases figures on the total number of registrants. While not a perfect measure, a review of the data over the first six months of 2020 and 2016 found an additional 25,000 voters added over the period four years ago compared to this year.   

The reality of fewer in-person registration and outreach opportunities has left groups, especially in the spring, take to social media to reach potential voters.

League of Women Voters voter eEducation manager Eileen Newcomer said most direct voter education had happened through the League's 20 local chapters, outreach that involved individuals stationing themselves at college or high school campuses or community events.

While some of the local chapters have recently returned to doing outdoor, in-person events this summer, Newcomer said officials have also organized a new phone and texting bank "to do outreach in a different kind of way."   

The texting effort targets young and likely first-time voters offering information about how to request an absentee ballot and more, she said. The first phone bank event, earlier this month, targets the so-called "movers" (or voters who were flagged by the state Elections Commission as having potentially moved based on information it received from state offices) to encourage them to check their registration status and ensure they have the information needed to vote this fall.   

Broadly speaking, the topics the group covers have changed too, Newcomer said, as more and more voters began seeking information on by-mail voting. 

"Because of the pandemic, we really switched from talking about registration and other topics around voting to focusing really heavily on voting absentee and trying to increase awareness around absentee voting," she said. 

But throughout the period, she noted a series of questions surrounding the witness requirement for mail-in voting and a lack of understanding that any registered voter in Wisconsin can vote absentee. The group also fielded many technical questions about how to request ballots online and more, she said, while attempting to combat misinformation about the process. 

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Efforts from parties  

Groups aren't alone in pioneering new and different approaches to reaching people this cycle.

While both parties have different approaches  with Republicans again going door-to-door to engage voters and Democrats relying more heavily on virtual calls to action  the state Republican party is also trying out a new strategy this time around: putting a greater emphasis on voter registration efforts. 

Despite the new focus, executive director Mark Jefferson said given the scaling back and shutting down of community events due to the COVID-19 crisis, "there have been fewer opportunities to take advantage of that commitment." 

Even with the challenges, a spokeswoman for Trump Victory, a combination of President Donald Trump's re-election campaign and the Republican National Committee, wrote in an email that officials have "surpassed our voter registration goal by two-and-a-half times" in Wisconsin following an "unprecedented voter registration effort." She didn't provide specific figures. 

While Wisconsin allows voters to register on Election Day, Jefferson said he's learned that those who registered ahead of time are "much more likely to vote." 

For Democrats, a party spokesman said officials have worked to expand their voter file and engage with residents since Trump took office, an approach that includes focusing on turnout and registering new voters. 

The spokesman said party successes in 2018, when Democrats swept the statewide offices, and 2020, when liberal Dane County Judge Jill Karofsky won a seat on the Supreme Court, show organizers are bringing in new ballot-casters committed to voting blue. 

He added that while thousands of Wisconsin residents may feel dejected by politics, the party isn't looking to ignore them, but rather engage them. 

Republicans have identified some 200,000 people in the state that backed Trump in November 2016 but cast ballots in no other fall elections this century, Jefferson said. Officials' goal is to reactivate those individuals and also find similar people and expand the electorate. 

Many of those voters, he said, live within an hour of the Mississippi River, though they're also spread throughout the state. 

"We need to get them registered," Jefferson said. "We need to get them to the polls." 

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Briana Reilly covers state government and politics for the Cap Times. She joined the staff in 2019, after working at Follow her on Twitter at @briana_reilly.

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