Window narrows to vote by absentee in person
Memo to about 20 percent of you—or as many as 600,000 Wisconsin voters—who plan to cast in-person absentee ballots before the Nov. 6 presidential election:
There’s a new two-week timetable for you to vote in that way. It runs from Monday, Oct. 22, until 5 p.m.—or when your local clerk’s office closes for the day—on Nov. 2, the Friday before the election.
If you think that’s earlier than the 2008 presidential election, you’re right. Absentee—or early voting—rules have changed in Wisconsin, creating a narrower, two-week window to vote in that way.
The change comes as absentee or early voting grows in Wisconsin and nationally. Voters in Iowa and Ohio started voting last week, for example.
In 2000, Wisconsin dropped a requirement that absentee voters had to list a reason they could not go to their local polling places, and 6 percent of Wisconsin votes were cast in that way. In 2004, 12 percent cast absentee ballots; in 2008, 21 percent did.
This year, state officials are projecting a 20 percent absentee vote. Overall, they are estimating that 3 million of the state’s 3.4 million registered voters will cast ballots.
In 2008, in-person absentee votes could be cast up until 5 p.m., or as long as local clerks’ offices stayed open for those waiting in line, on the Monday before the Tuesday presidential election.
But 2008’s Monday deadline was an administrative and exhausting nightmare for local clerks and their employees, said Sun Prairie City Clerk Diane Hermann-Brown, an 18-year veteran of elections and a Wisconsin Municipal Clerks Association official.
“Clerks just needed that time to get their work done,” Hermann-Brown said last week, explaining why she and other local officials sought the change.
Local officials such as Hermann-Brown pressured state officials, who changed the rules to set up the two-week deadline—between Oct. 22 and Nov. 2—that is the law for this presidential election.
In a report, staff members for the Government Accountability Board, which oversees elections, documented these problems with in-person absentee voting in 2008:
“Due to the large volume of voters who cast their ballots before Election Day, clerks and voters experienced a number of problems. First, there were long lines, some lasting more than three hours, for voters. …
“Second, many clerks and staff had to work late into the night on election eve to enter voter registrations and absentee ballot applications into the Statewide Voter Registration System (SVRS) and prepare absentee ballot logs for the next day.
“In a few cases, [clerks] were unable to enter all of their absentee ballot applications on election eve and found themselves playing catch-up, entering absentee applications in SVRS even as they tried to administer voting on Election Day.”
Hermann-Brown said she thinks most voters know they can no longer cast in-person absentee ballots on the Monday before the Nov. 6 election.
Nov. 6 will be the sixth election this year with that Friday cut-off for those voters, Hermann-Brown said.
“They haven’t voted (absentee) on Mondays for the last five elections,” Hermann-Brown said. That included the June 5 recall election, won by Gov. Scott Walker, which saw 2.5 million votes cast.
Municipal clerks who administer elections “can only do so much,” Hermann-Brown added. “Some of that is the responsibility of the voter.”
But the new two-week window for up to 600,000 voters to cast absentee votes means there will again be lines—and waits—in clerks’ offices, GAB Director Kevin J. Kennedy predicted.
“I’m not sure that most people are aware of the tighter deadlines,” Kennedy said.
Many voters “don’t start paying attention to this stuff” until the last few days before the election, Kennedy said.
“There’s heavy (voter) traffic in that two-week period” for those who want to cast in-person absentee votes, Kennedy added.
Also, GAB “didn’t do that information campaign saying, ‘It’s changed,’” Kennedy said of the new deadlines.
But Hermann-Brown said cutting off in-person absentee voting on Nov. 2 lets clerks rearrange the hours of office workers to meet the two-week demand.
What will staffers tell any voter showing up at Sun Prairie City Hall on Monday, Nov. 5, expecting to cast an in-person absentee ballot?
The person will be advised to vote “at the polls” Tuesday, Hermann-Brown said.
Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. This column reflects his personal perspective. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.