Capitol Report Electronic voting for in-person absentee ballots

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A bill that would let voters casting in-person absentee ballots use an electronic voting machine is getting widespread support from municipal clerks, who argue the change would reduce costs while increasing public confidence.

Currently, those voting absentee in person must fill out paper ballots, seal them in an envelope and sign the envelope. They then aren't opened and tallied until Election Day, a timeline some clerks and the bill's author argued strains poll workers and taps into local resources.

Under the bill from Rep. Janel Brandtjen, R-Menomonee Falls, those ballots still wouldn't be tallied until Election Day, although municipal clerks would have to post a daily tally of ballots cast - if the municipalities opted into giving its voters the option to cast ballots that way.

"This is really just about instead of putting it in an envelope, you as a voter have the opportunity to feed it into a machine," Brandtjen said Nov. 28 at an Assembly public hearing on the legislation.

WISCONSIN Elections Commission Chairman Michael Haas, though, raised concerns that the bill would lack uniformity in its treatment of voters and ballots, which he said would be dealt with differently "depending on what municipality you live in."

For example, he said, if someone makes an error on their in-person absentee ballot, the voting equipment would give them a warning sign and opportunity to correct their ballot, which "doesn't happen to voters who submit their ballot by mail."

And Haas said municipalities wouldn't be able to offer their voters this option unless they had access to newer equipment equipped with a write-in functionality.

Still, Assembly Campaigns and Elections Committee Chair Rep. Kathleen Bernier said there's no uniformity in the current absentee process, pointing to the different hours municipal clerks work across the state.

"To me, it's how the ballot is processed," she said.

A COUPLE of committee Democrats, meanwhile, said the bill doesn't incorporate early voting measures that are part of a lawsuit spearheaded by the liberal One Wisconsin Institute.

A federal judge in July 2016 struck down certain restrictions on early voting hours and locations in the One Wisconsin Institute v. Thomsen case, which argued some of those state election laws had disproportionately affected minorities.

The case is now before the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, which has yet to issue a ruling after the three-judge panel heard oral arguments in the case at the end of February.

The concern was also echoed by Milwaukee election official Neil Albrecht, who called for an amendment to stipulate the timeline to when in-person absentee voting would be allowed to reflect whatever the appeals court decides.

"I think it's critical to all of us that this issue be clarified that there can be no interpretation of this bill as possibly a back door to limiting or restricting in-person absentee voting in the state of Wisconsin," he said.

BUT Albrecht overall voiced support for the legislation, citing the growing number of in-person absentee voters in Milwaukee.

In the 2000 fall presidential election, the city had 5,000 in-person absentee voters, he said. That doubled to 10,000 in 2004, and hit 32,000 in 2008, before reaching 37,500 in 2012. In the 2016 fall general election, he said, it jumped 37 percent to 52,500, with 90 percent of those individuals voting in the two weeks prior to the election.

Saying that the state hasn't been adequately preparing for the increase in in-person early voters, Albrecht added the bill "not only addresses issues of cost and process but it also brings an additional sense of integrity to the process itself."

Committee member and GOP Rep. Joe Sanfelippo, though, called the jump in in-person absentee voting a "self-inflicted problem," saying if those 52,000 people didn't come to early vote they'd likely show up on Election Day anyway to cast their ballots.

"The argument of cost and employees doesn't make sense to me," the New Berlin Republican said. "It seems like we're complaining about a problem that we're causing."

WisPolitics is a nonpartisan organization devoted to covering Wisconsin state government and politics. The column is distributed by the Wisconsin Newspaper Association.

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