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Wisconsin agrees to broad mailing of absentee applications

By SCOTT BAUER
Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Wisconsin Elections Commission voted Wednesday to mail absentee ballot applications to most voters in the battleground state ahead of November’s presidential election.

The vote came just a week after the panel split 3-3 along partisan lines on whether to mail the forms to nearly all registered voters, even those who hadn’t requested one. Democrats favored the broad mailing, and Republicans were opposed to it.

Although the panel reached unanimous agreement Wednesday on the mailing to some 2.7 million registered voters, there’s a possible hangup. The partisans must reach agreement on the wording of the mailing, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported.

Democrats want commission staff to provide the wording, arguing that the divided commission might deadlock on the phrasing. Republicans said the commission members could work out any differences.

Republican Commissioner Bob Spindell accused Democrats on the commission of being afraid to tell recipients of other ways to vote than by absentee.

The Journal Sentinel reported that lack of agreement on the letter could keep it from being sent.

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 been opposed to offering more mail-in voting.

President Donald Trump threatened to pull money 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.

The mailing would send out the absentee ballot application form, not actual ballots. To receive a ballot, voters must return the completed form with a copy of their photo ID. A paper form sent to voters 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.

Absentee voting surged in Wisconsin’s April 7 presidential primary and spring election. Nearly 1.2 million absentee ballots wer 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.

The state has 3.4 million registered voters. About 528,000 have already requested absentees and the state believes about 158,000 have moved since they last voted; that leaves about 2.7 million people to be mailed absentee applications.

In an attempt to prepare for that expected increase 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 also calls for sending information about voting to voters and offsetting mailing expenses incurred by local clerks. Commission staff originally recommended redesigning absentee-ballot envelopes, but they said Wednesday that this change should be delayed until next year, citing concerns from clerks. The commission last week approved spending $500,000 on local election clerks to buy supplies, such as hand sanitizer, for coming elections.

The mailing would send 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.

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