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Journal Times editorial: Give the clerks more support for Election Day
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Journal Times editorial: Give the clerks more support for Election Day

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As if we didn’t have enough things to worry about.

For months now, it’s been COVID-19 that has dominated the news and taken up what seems like a permanent residence in the worry zone between our ears.

Job furloughs and layoffs, company closings, deaths, travel bans, mask and no-mask disputes all fed the frenzy of fear.

Now, as fall approaches, the concerns have switched to the re-opening of schools and universities or whether to go to virtual schooling. There have been no easy answers with this persistent pandemic.

While it may not rise to the same level as those worries, waiting in the wings is another potential COVID victim here in Wisconsin—the November presidential elections.

Perhaps they will go smoothly here in Wisconsin—we can only hope—but if it doesn’t it could replicate the Florida meltdown 20 years ago and the court fight over “hanging chads” in presidential race that had a margin of 537 votes that ultimately went to George W. Bush.

In the spring election in Wisconsin, coronavirus fears saw thousands of state voters decide to vote early via absentee ballots instead of going to the polls and that is likely to be repeated this fall.

In November, it is projected that about 3 million Wisconsin voters will cast ballots—with an estimated 1.8 million of them coming by mail.

Some states, like Utah and Washington, have voted by mail without problems, but they spent big dollars automating the process.

Wisconsin, by comparison, was thrust into the vote-by-mail surge because of COVID last spring and despite the effort of election clerks to handle the volume, a combination of arcane state laws, USPS ballot delivery issues, last minute changes by lawmakers, election officials and judges because of disputes put chaos and 150,000 absentee ballots were either not returned or rejected due to errors, according to a report this month by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, after a three-month investigation in combination with Columbia Journalism Investigations and PBS’ Frontlines.

The November turnout will be even higher and that spring discrepancy of 150,000 votes could loom large if it is repeated in a split state that went to President Donald Trump by 22,000 votes in 2016.

One of the big problems is the mail issue. Wisconsin allows voters to request a ballot just 5 days before Election Day, but getting a ballot send out and returned to election officials in that time frame is nearly impossible. And as happened last spring it can trigger challenges over whether a ballot was postmarked by Election Day—since many ballots were not marked or didn’t have date stamps.

The Wisconsin Election Commission has made some changes to streamline voter registration and and getting absentee ballots—but that still requires voters to upload their photo ID to the state website—a process which is challenging to some people. One town clerk in Wisconsin has taken to driving to people’s houses to help them with that process if they need it, but that’s hardly a reasonable path in urban areas.

Clerks have also asked the state Legislature to allow them to run ballots through tabulation machines as they are returned and not wait until Election Day to process them all, but the Legislature has not acted. That change would give clerks more flexibility and smooth the election process.

If Wisconsin bungles the presidential election vote with delays and uncounted ballots, we will undoubtedly hear cries of “Fraud” and a series of court challenges.

In the long run, Wisconsin needs to spend some money to automate tabulation of absentee ballots—which may be the new norm in our coronavirus world.

In the short term, if you want to make sure your ballot counts, request your absentee ballot as soon as possible — yes, you can make that request now by going to the state website, myvote.wi.gov. Fill it in promptly when you get it and put it back in the mail. You can also track it on the state website to make sure the clerk has received it.

That will give you one less thing to worry about.

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