Wisconsin’s April 7 primary is serving as a warning to states under pressure to provide an alternative to in-person voting.
The nearly 1.1 million absentee ballots mailed in as of a Monday update by the state Elections Commission will likely make up 80% of the total vote, according to a FiveThirtyEight estimate, far more than the state saw in 2016. Election officials and postal workers were overwhelmed with ballot requests. Some voters who asked for ballots reportedly either never got them or received them too late to mail them back in time.
It was a glance into the future for states looking to adjust traditional voting procedures in response to the coronavirus outbreak. States face numerous obstacles to quickly phasing in mail-in ballots, and scaling up operations over the next six months could easily overwhelm counties and states with limited experience and infrastructure.
“The November election will be a train wreck if we don’t start preparing to run our elections by mail now,” said Michael McDonald, who specializes in American elections at the University of Florida. “Wisconsin is the canary in the coal mine on this. We’re looking at a whole flock of canaries dying.”
Only five states conduct voting entirely through the mail. In 2018, 27 states had less than 10% of ballots cast through the mail, according to an election commission analysis.
“It’s not something you can shift dramatically,” said Don Palmer, a commissioner with the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, which was created in 2002 to help local election officials. “It takes time, it takes resources. Most states that have transitions happen between 5 to 10 years.”
Congress provided an additional $400 million to help states deal with the effects of the coronavirus, but election officials have said they are having difficulty accessing the money because of matching grant requirements and other problems.
A number of states have announced they will move primaries to all-mail, including Ohio, Maryland and Nevada. Others, including Rhode Island, are considering it. Restrictions on who can vote by absentee ballot have been lifted in New York and Delaware. Connecticut is looking into a similar measure.
States would realistically need to decide this week if they plan to expand absentee voting for the November elections, according to the National Vote At Home Institute and Coalition, a nonprofit supporting voting by mail as a secure and cost-effective process. Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Utah and Hawaii already have all-mail in elections. On the other end of the spectrum, 14 states require a valid excuse for voting absentee.
While most states allow the governor to change both statutes and regulations during a declared emergency, a handful of states don’t make it explicit. In Wisconsin, an effort by Gov. Tony Evers (D) to delay the election was blocked by the state Supreme Court after an appeal by Republican legislative leaders.
Even state officials who successfully made changes may still face problems that plagued Wisconsin, said Amber McReynolds, chief executive officer at Vote At Home.
Ohio, Georgia and Idaho are asking voters to submit a request for their ballots, rather than simply mailing registered voters ballots. In Wisconsin, that led to municipal clerks and postal workers being flooded with requests for ballots, which in some cases may not have reached voters in time.
“In the states that have announced you can sign up, or they will send a ballot request form, they might see that same kind of uptick at the last minute, which is really hard for election officials to respond to,” McReynolds said.
Distributing ballots has its own complications, said Idaho Chief Deputy Secretary of State Chad Houck. In the primaries, Idaho voters need to specify if they want a Democrat, Republican or another party’s ballot. Houck estimates sending everyone a ballot would cost roughly $700,000 in unused ballots, and triple that if every voter was sent three ballots.
Officials also need to address questions such as whether a witness is needed for the ballot to be valid and deciding the process for when a voter makes a mistake on their ballot, deeming it invalid. They also must figure out how to begin counting absentee ballots before Election day.
“You have to work with the law that is in your state or get it changed,” said Wendy Underhill, director of the National Conference of State Legislatures’ elections and redistricting team. “We’re all in uncharted territory.”
Aside from estimating how many ballots to print and envelopes to buy, staff will need to be retrained in handling mail-in ballots, which in some states include steps such as verifying that the signature on the outside of the envelope matches the voter who filled out the ballot on the inside.
For many counties, the issue will be one of numbers, said Ben Hovland, an EAC commissioner.
“If you’re a large jurisdiction that has not traditionally had a lot of vote by mail, and you’re looking at a very high volume, and you don’t have the right automatic equipment, that is a very daunting task,” he said.
Hawaii’s Chief Election Officer Scott Nago said a key to successful mail-in voting is educating voters about changes. Voters are now being sent multiple mailers letting them know a law signed last year made the state’s elections mail-only. Any returned mailers let election officials know a person moved, which helps keep voter rolls up to date. The state also passed legislation allowing election officials to begin processing ballots 10 days before the election to avoid delays in counting and announcing results, Nago said.
Even with most of the ballots being mailed out, it’s still important to give voters options, said Phil Keisling, a former Oregon Secretary of State who championed the state’s vote by mail system. Keisling said rather than mail their completed ballots in, many Oregonians drop them in large secure boxes around the state.
“Every state that hasn’t done a lot of this is going to have to learn very, very quickly,” Keisling said. “You have no choice.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Emily Wilkins in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org