By M.D. Kittle Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON — One thing can be said about the rapid-fire mailing campaigns urging Wisconsin voters to cast absentee ballots ahead of next month’s remaining recall elections: They appear to be working.
In Portage, for instance, some residents walked into City Hall recently expecting the polls to be open, thanks to a Democratic Party of Wisconsin mailing entreating voters in the 14th Senate District to “Vote Early” and “Vote Now,” said Melissa Leeland, Portage deputy city clerk.
“Many are elderly,” she said of the confused voters.
The bigger problem, Leeland said, is that at least some voters in the Aug. 9 recall election — pitting incumbent Republican Sen. Luther Olsen against Democratic challenger Rep. Fred Clark — were not sure whether they even voted.
“They have received quite a few postcards” from political groups, the deputy clerk said. “They don’t understand whether they’ve been signed up for” an absentee ballot.
Leeland said those issues have been cleared up, but the barrage of absentee ballot request notices presents a more troublesome — some say even sinister — consequence.
In at least one instance, a voter received a notice with an absentee ballot request addressed to the city clerk of Portage, with a mailing address for New London.
“I attributed it to different groups (that) didn’t update things properly,” said Sue Tennie, clerk of New London, also in central Wisconsin’s 14th Senate District. The mailings, Tennie said, came from post office boxes in Madison, and one in Waunakee.
Some have charged fraud, or that political groups like the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, Wisconsin Right to Life and the United Sportsmen of Wisconsin are set on sabotaging the political process.
Tennie disagreed. And the Government Accountability Board, or GAB, the state election agency, had no proof, as of Tuesday afternoon, to suggest that the erroneous mailing addresses were anything but an innocent mix-up.
“There’s no evidence of deceit, but votes are not going where they are intended,” said GAB spokesman Reid Magney, noting the mistakes could be a computer error.
He did offer Wisconsin voters some advice: Those voting absentee in the recalls should contact their municipal clerk for the proper forms.
“Don’t trust a political party or interest group to get you your ballot,” Magney said.
It’s all perfectly legal, and it’s nothing new. Wisconsin election officials in recent years have seen a furious campaign by candidates, parties and their supporters to get out the vote early. After all, an absentee vote is a ballot in the bank.
Early voters are often more passionate about elections, arguably more committed, and more decisive than many of their counterparts who show up at the polls on Election Day not entirely sure how they will vote.
Early voting by mail is associated with a statistically significant increase in turnout, ranging from 1.73 to 4.15 percent, according to the Early Voting Information Center, a nonpartisan center that provides state-by-state information on early and absentee voting.
In this recall election, however, it’s not about locking in support, as much as it is a race against a
quickly ticking clock, said Jeff Weigand, Olsen’s campaign manager.
“We have the numbers in this race; this is a Republican district,” he said. “It’s a matter of turnout. That’s why absentee ballots are so crucial. That’s the only reason we’ll lose is low turnout.”
As Weigand put it, Aug. 9 is a “goofy time” for an election, and Wisconsinites have other things they would rather do in the fleeting days of summer than cast a ballot in a recall election.
The Clark campaign did not return a call from Wisconsin Reporter seeking comment.
There also are the election mechanism breakdowns expected in a hastily organized and unprecedented recall effort, targeting six Senate Republicans and three Democrats in the wake of a bitter state budget battle, Weigand said. Sauk County’s clerk reportedly was sending out emails and online absentee ballots to municipalities this week after a vendor failed to come through on ballots.
Wisconsin Right to Life’s mailing campaign directs ballot application requests to a processing center in Madison, said Barb Lyons, the anti-abortion group’s executive director.
Lyons said Right to Life received a call last week about an application that was sent to the wrong city clerk, and the organization has worked to correct the error. Mistakes will happen, she said, but some have made serious accusations to the contrary.
“It’s a highly unusual in that the decibel level is one octave higher than it usually is,” Lyons said. “People are making charges that are kind of shooting from the hip. Wisconsin Right to Life has a long-standing reputation of working within the law to assist people to get their votes in. We are doing nothing illegal.”
Gillian Morris, press secretary for the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, said she is confident local and state election officials are making sure everything is “on the up and up.”
Katie McCallum, spokeswoman for the Republican Party of Wisconsin, on Tuesday said she had not heard of any problems associated with absentee ballot requests.
There have been other reports of questionable campaigning practices, Magney said. The GAB confirmed reports of robo-calls in the La Crosse area reminding voters to vote Aug. 16 — one week after the scheduled elections.
“Those sorts of efforts that mislead or confuse voters; those are things that are much more likely to affect the outcome of the election,” Magney said.
But the absentee voter mailing blitz appears to be working. In Portage, as of Tuesday, absentee ballots were up 25 percent compared with an average general election, according to the clerk’s office.
Ballots were nearly double the usual flow in New London.
And municipal clerks expect more of the same long after these recall elections are over.
“For the elections for president, there will be lots of these out and about,” Tennie said.