Wisconsin weighs mailing all voters an absentee application

Published: May. 20, 2020 at 3:01 PM CDT
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Wisconsin election officials were poised Wednesday to vote on a plan to mail absentee ballot applications to voters who haven’t requested one, a move that could incur President Donald Trump’s wrath after he threatened to pull funding from other states that have adopted similar measures.

The Wisconsin Elections Commission was scheduled to vote on a staff recommendation to spend $2.1 million from the federal coronavirus relief bill to send ballot applications to 2.7 million voters.

The proposal comes two days after advocates for the disabled and minorities filed a federal lawsuit asking a judge to order that the commission send absentee applications to all voters to ensure the state’s August primary and November presidential elections can be held safely in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

Wisconsin’s Republican legislators took heavy criticism for refusing to postpone an April 7 election that included the presidential primary. About two-thirds of all ballots were cast absentee, and commission staff said they expect requests for the fall — where turnout will be much higher — will set another record. Mailing applications to voters would help more people participate and give local election clerks more lead time, the memo said.

But Republicans assert that voting by mail is ripe for fraud. On Monday, Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel portrayed the party’s $20 million campaign against Democratic efforts to expand mail voting as a principled stance to protect the sanctity of the ballot. The GOP-controlled U.S. Senate has so far stopped Democrats from mandating expanded mail and early voting as part of coronavirus relief bills, arguing states should be able to make decisions on their own election systems. The battle has largely moved to the courts, with Democrats filing at least 15 lawsuits to force states to expand their programs.

Trump has said that voting by mail will lead to so many people casting ballots that Republicans will lose in November. The president tweeted on Wednesday that he’ll withhold federal funding for Michigan after Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson’s announcement that she would send absentee ballot applications to every voter in the state. He followed that up with a similar threat against Nevada. That state’s Republican secretary of state sent ballots for a June 9 primary with a federal judge’s blessing.

It was not immediately clear what funds Trump was referencing. The states are paying for their elections changes through coronavirus relief spending measures the president signed into law.

The Wisconsin commission’s spokesman, Reid Magney, said it already has the federal relief money in hand. The commission is split evenly between Republicans and Democrats; a tie vote would mean the proposal fails. Magney didn’t immediately respond to a message asking about whether commissioners were concerned about angering Trump.

The state Senate’s Republican majority leader, Scott Fitzgerald, said the the money should instead go toward allowing local clerks to expand early voting hours and hire more staff.

“Wisconsin has online registration, excuse-free absentee voting, early in-person voting, and Election Day registration, making it easier to vote in Wisconsin than most other states. I urge the Commissioners to reject the proposal in its current form,” Fitzgerald said in a statement.

The commission also was scheduled vote on whether to spend $2.6 million from the relief bill to help local clerks cover postage and mailing costs for sending out absentee ballots; $500,000 to help clerks purchase sanitation supplies and personal protective equipment for polling places in August and November; and $133,320 to redesign absentee ballot envelopes to make them more user-friendly.

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