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Here’s why you might be getting mail from the Wisconsin Elections Commission

Published: Sep. 4, 2020 at 5:10 PM CDT
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WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAW) - Wisconsin’s 2.6 million registered voters are getting information packets this week that include an absentee ballot request form, after the Wisconsin Elections Commission mailed the packets Tuesday. It’s the first of its kind from the WEC, paid for by CARES Act funds with the intent of helping voters stay informed on their voting options for the presidential election in November as absentee voting popularity skyrockets across the state during the pandemic.

Election officials with the WEC estimate that according to preliminary figures, 80% of the ballots cast during the August primary election were absentee ballots (including in-person absentee), up from about 60% absentee participation in the April election, a sharp increase from the pre-pandemic average of 6% of all ballots cast. Almost 1 million ballots have been requested for the November election as of the morning of Sep. 4; that’s about two-thirds of total ballots cast in April.

I’ve never seen this before. Why now?

The information mailing and absentee ballot request form, sent to registered voters that hadn’t yet requested a ballot by late June, is part of the WEC’s efforts to prepare for the November election during a year when the demand for processing absentee ballots has sharply increase amid COVID-19.

“The bipartisan Elections Commission unanimously authorized this first-of-its-kind mailing because they believe it is vitally important for voters to know that during the pandemic they have three options for voting in November,” Wisconsin’s chief election official Meagan Wolfe noted in a press release.

Is this a ballot?

No. According to the WEC, absentee ballots won’t start to be mailed out until September 17, and in-person absentee voting opens two weeks before Election Day on October 20th.

“The mailer is to inform voters on their options to cast a ballot in November,” Wolfe said.

Mailing ballots to voters automatically is allowed in a handful of other states but would require a statutory change under Wisconsin law.

I already requested my absentee ballot. Why am I getting another request form?

Stevens Point elections specialist Kari Yenter says she’s heard from a few voters who asked why they’re getting another absentee ballot request form after they’ve already submitted a request for a ballot. All information packets included the form and were sent to all registered voters using June registry data; the request form was included as a convenience but voters can request them online or from their municipal clerks as well. Voters who already submitted a request for their absentee ballot don’t need to resubmit a new request; if they do, only one ballot will still be issued. Absentee ballot request forms are publicly available documents, and getting one does not mean a ballot has been sent out. According to Meagan Wolfe, the informational packet is not included as part of a voter’s official voting record.

“Because our final mailing list of 2.6 million voters was created in June, some people who have since requested absentee ballots will get it. There will also be some letters addressed to people who are no longer eligible and registered,” Wolfe said in a WEC press release. “That’s okay, this mailer is not tied to voter records – it is just informational. Only eligible, registered voters will receive a ballot if they request one.”

When should I request my ballot?

If you plan to request your absentee ballot, election officials are asking you to do that as soon as possible. Ballots can be requested up through October 29 for most people, but officials recommend to account for at least a 14-day timeframe from the day a ballot is requested to the day it’s return to a municipal clerk through the mail. Absentee ballot mailings will start on September 17, but you can also vote in-person absentee starting Oct. 20, or request your ballot and use a drop-off municipal location (if available) to get it back to your city clerk.

As part of their system upgrades adjusting to higher absentee voting for the November election and responding to issues in the spring, the WEC has implemented intelligent mail barcodes clerks can choose to use for absentee ballots to track them for voters opting to use the mail to return their ballots. If a ballot winds up lost, election officials can cancel the existing ballot and reissue it--if they have enough time.

“It is so important that people act early if this is the option that they choose, because if something does go wrong in the system we have tools to be able to detect that and to be able to remedy it while there’s still time,” Wolfe said during a media availability interview on Thursday.

Did any voting laws change?

The packet is designed to educate registered voters on Wisconsin’s three voting options, statutes that have been on the books and used for years. Voters still need to use a photo I.D. to register to vote, request an absentee ballot, vote in-person absentee, or vote at the polls on Election Day. Wisconsin is a request-based absentee system, meaning that voters have to request a ballot before one is mailed to them.

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