Elections Commission Approves Absentee Ballot Mailers

The bipartisan commission voted unanimously to send mailers to 2.7 million voters that includes information on voting absentee and in-person, and includes an absentee ballot request form.

By Will Kenneally

June 17, 2020

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Ann Jacobs and Bob Spindell

Commissioners Ann Jacobs and Bob Spindell during a June 17, 2020 meeting of the Wisconsin Elections Commission.

The Wisconsin Elections Commission gave final approval to send absentee ballot requests to 2.7 million Wisconsin voters.

Though the mailers were approved by the body last month, the commission voted 6-0 Wednesday to adopt small changes to the staff’s mailer, clarifying deadlines for ballots and requests as well as the role of absentee voting witnesses.

The mailing, which only contains information on the November election, will go into print this month before being sent to voters by September.

The move by the bipartisan commission comes in the face of Republican opposition to sending out the ballot request forms.

“While we support the effort to encourage involvement and civic engagement through voting, sending a mass mailer of this magnitude would add significant expense and effort to each of Wisconsin’s 1,850 municipal clerks who are already stretched thin,” Rep. Rick Gundrum, R-Slinger, wrote in a letter to the commission.

Example of a mailer prepared by Wisconsin Elections Commission staff that provides voting information and an absentee ballot request form.

Under the process approved by the commission, voters would return their mailers and supporting documents to the commission office in Madison. Commission employees would then enter mailer information into a central database where municipal clerks could either approve and process or reject the requests.

This comes as Wisconsin faces unprecedented rates of absentee voting amid the COVID-19 pandemic. In April, 62% of all voters–964,433 people–voted absentee.

As the state expects high rates of absentee voting in the fall as well, the commission split over whether to preemptively rule on the practice of “ballot harvesting”–when an organization collects and returns absentee ballots en masse on behalf of voters.

The conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty asked the commission to begin a rulemaking process to clarify Wisconsin statute which allows for absentee ballots to “be mailed by the elector, or delivered in person, to the municipal clerk issuing the ballot or ballots.”

The group argued the law could be construed to allow those other than the voter themself to return the ballot in person, violating the intent of the law. Republicans have also argued the practice has the potential for fraud, where those collecting ballots could refuse to turn them in.

“It’s ridiculous to say that in mass chaos and so forth, that that doesn’t give some people the chance to do it,” said Republican appointee to the commission Bob Spindell.

He added that there were existing rumors of fraud, in comments that were flagged as racist by other commissioners.

“There has been rumors out there, especially in the various projects, apartments and so forth and so on, of even with a small number of absentee ballots, that there has been the harvesting aspect,” Spindell said.

“I think the dog whistle of ‘projects’ was a really unfortunate one,” said Democratic appointee Ann Jacobs.

Democratic appointees to the commission argued that that kind of policy making was the purview of the Legislature, and feared issuing a guidance that would criminalize a spouse or close family member for returning a ballot on behalf of a voter.

Commissioner Dean Knudson, a Republican appointee, offered to issue a guidance that exempted family members, but the motion failed along party lines as Democrats argued the guidance was too narrow.

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