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Wisconsin panel gives final approval on absentee ballots

By SCOTT BAUER
Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Wisconsin Elections Commission gave final approval to a mailing that will put application forms for absentee ballots in the hands of 2.7 million registered voters ahead of the November presidential election.

The commission, split evenly among Republicans and Democrats, previously voted unanimously in favor of sending the mailing to about 80% of registered voters. But it didn’t give final approval to the letter that will accompany it until Wednesday. The mailing is coming in expectation of a surge of absentee voting in the fall due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Commissioner Bob Spindell, a Republican, said mailing the absentee ballot applications was “good for both the Republicans and the Democrats.” The commission voted unanimously to approve the letter after making several technical changes to the wording.

The Wisconsin mailing, to be sent by Sept. 1, will include an application form for an absentee ballot, not actual ballots. To receive a ballot, a voter must return the completed form along with a copy of their photo ID.

The letter approved Wednesday contains information on how to request a ballot online; legal requirements for absentee voting; instructions on how to use the MyVote Wisconsin website; as well as a list of in-person voting options.

Absentee voting surged in Wisconsin’s April 7 presidential primary and spring election, when nearly 1.2 million absentee ballots were cast, or 74% of the total. 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 absentee ballots, and the state estimates about 158,000 voters have moved since they last voted, leaving about 2.7 million people who will be mailed absentee applications.

The $2.2 million cost of the mailing will be paid for with part of the $7.3 million in federal funding Wisconsin has received to help with elections amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Democrats in Wisconsin and nationally have advocated for more mail-in voting as a way to reduce the risk that COVID-19 will be spread among people voting in person. Republicans have opposed expanding mail-in voting.

President Donald Trump, who won Wisconsin by fewer than 23,000 votes in 2016, threatened to pull money from states that had 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.

Wisconsin state Rep. Rick Gundrum, of Slinger, circulated a letter to lawmakers on Tuesday urging the commission not to send the ballot application forms to voters who did not request them. But the commission did not discuss the letter.

The elections commission also rejected a request to enact a rule prohibiting the practice of ballot harvesting. That is the procedure in which outside groups, typically partisan, help to send or return large numbers of absentee ballots.

Twenty-seven states allow voters to designate someone else to return their ballots, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Wisconsin is one of 13 states that is silent on the issue, according to NCSL.

The Legislature last year refused to specifically outlaw ballot harvesting in state law. Earlier this month, the conservative law firm Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty filed a petition with the elections commission asking it to adopt rules stating that only a voter can request an absentee ballot and place it in mail.

Elections commission staff said last year that it was not aware of any attempts in Wisconsin by a political campaign or organization to systematically collect absentee ballots.

The commission deadlocked 3-3 on a motion to begin drafting the regulations WILL has requested. A tie vote means a motion fails. All three Republicans on the commission voted to start writing the rules; the three Democratic commissioners voted against the proposal.

The vote clears the way for WILL to file a lawsuit to force the commission to draft such language.

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