Wisconsin panel to vote on mailing absentee ballot forms

A politically divided Wisconsin Elections Commission on Wednesday planned to consider for the second time in a week whether to mail absentee ballot application forms to 2.7 million registered voters in the battleground state ahead of the November presidential election.

The panel split 3-3 along partisan lines last week on whether to mail the forms to nearly all registered voters, even if they had not requested one. Democrats were in favor while Republicans were opposed. The commission was meeting again Wednesday to take up the issue again.

Democrats in Wisconsin and nationally have advocated for more mail-in voting as a way to reduce the risk of catching COVID-19 from voting in person. Republicans have opposed expanding mail-in voting. President Donald Trump threatened to pull funding from states that have moved aggressively to get absentee ballots to all voters. Trump has claimed, without evidence, that mail-in voting leads to "total election fraud." His GOP allies, meanwhile, have fought changes to voting in court and opposed funding to expand mail-in voting in Congress.

Republican Scott Fitzgerald, the Wisconsin Senate's majority leader who is running for Congress, last week also spoke out against mailing absentee ballots to all voters.

Wisconsin officials mull November absentee voting changes

Absentee voting surged in Wisconsin's April 7 presidential primary and spring election, with nearly 1.2 million absentee ballots cast, or 74% of the total. Nearly a million of the people who voted absentee returned their ballots by mail rather than in person at a clerk's office. State officials estimate that as many as 1.8 million voters could request absentee ballots for the November election, further straining state and local election officials.

In an attempt to prepare for that expected surge in mail-in voting, the elections commission staff recommended using $5.3 million in federal coronavirus relief money to prepare. About $2.1 million would be used to send the absentee ballot application form to nearly all registered voters.

The plan would also call for sending information about voting to voters, offsetting mailing expenses incurred by local clerks and redesigning absentee ballot envelopes. The commission last week approved the spending of $500,000 for local election clerks to buy supplies, such as hand sanitizer, for upcoming elections.

Dean Knudson, the Republican chairman of the commission, voiced optimism that the commission could agree to send the ballot application forms to some voters, but not 2.7 million. Knudson opposed sending the forms to those who appear likely to have voted by mail previously or who live in communities that were already planning to mail the forms to their residents. Milwaukee is considering doing that this fall and smaller communities did it in April.

One option for the board to consider Wednesday would send ballots to 2.1 million voters, excluding those who have an absentee ballot application on file, appear to have moved or have a photo ID on file with a local clerk. There are about 3.4 million registered voters in Wisconsin.

The commission is considering sending out the absentee ballot application form, not actual ballots. To receive a ballot, the voter must return the completed form with a copy of their photo ID. A paper form sent to the voter could be returned in the mail, but they would also receive information about how to request a ballot electronically through the state's MyVote website.

Groups that advocate for the disabled and minorities filed a federal lawsuit this month asking a judge to order the commission to send absentee ballot applications to all voters ahead of the statewide August primary and November presidential elections. There are at least 15 lawsuits nationwide filed by Democrats seeking to force states to expand their absentee ballot programs.