By Kirsten Adshead | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON — If the clock seems to be ticking on the November elections, for a growing number of voters, it’s already tocked.
Starting last week, ballots began winging their way to Wisconsinites who serve in the military, live overseas or who want to vote absentee by mail – meaning voters may be making their decisions weeks before Election Day, even if the votes themselves won’t be tabulated until Nov. 6.
The percentage of Wisconsinites voting via absentee ballot has been on the rise, at least in presidential years, from about 6 percent in 2000 to 12 percent in 2004 to 21 percent in 2008, according to the Government Accountability Board, which plans to give more details about early voting for this election, including the number of ballots requested thus far, in a news conference Tuesday morning.
“Almost daily we have people coming into the office wanting to know where to register,” said Vicki Burke, chairwoman of the La Crosse County Democratic Party. “We encourage people who might have some difficulty getting to the polls on Election Day to vote early.”
There’s no clear evidence to indicate the early and absentee voting significantly affects the outcome of a race.
“The people most likely to absentee vote or early vote are the people who are most likely to have their minds made up” and therefore wouldn’t be swayed in the final weeks anyway, Marquette University political scientist John McAdams said.
But campaigns and political parties have begun to account for — and make use of — the trend toward pre-election day voting.
In the coming days and weeks voters in several swing states will begin casting ballots — for example, Iowa, Ohio, North Carolina and Nevada.
In-person absentee voting in Wisconsin begins two weeks before the election.
Campaigns want their base voters to vote early, particularly those with spotty voting records who can’t be counted on to show up on election day, GOP political strategist Mark Graul said.
An absentee vote, he said, “is a vote in the bank.”
Wisconsin has the country’s most decentralized election system, with 1,851 local clerks largely overseeing the elections, according to GAB.
That, to say the least, has led to struggles.
In March, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against the State of Wisconsin and GAB after dozens of the state’s municipal clerks missed the deadline for sending out absentee ballots to overseas and military voters prior to the Feb. 18 election. It was the second time DOJ filed a lawsuit against the state for not complying with the 2009 federal Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act.
Wisconsin lawmakers pushed the primary from September to August to accommodate the MOVE Act, which requires ballots be sent to military voters no later than 45 days prior to a federal election.
GAB also signed a consent decree with DOJ this past spring to avoid further litigation, an agreement that included orders to report back to the federal government about MOVE Act compliance.
This election, GAB launched a new website, myvote.wi.gov, through which military and overseas voters can request and receive their ballots online.
“Wisconsin already has a great record of quickly serving its military and permanent overseas voters,” Nat Robinson, Elections Division administrator, said in a statement. “But this new system will ensure all requests are honored immediately rather than being delayed, and their voting process will be faster and easier.”
Ballots, however, cannot be filed electronically. They still have to be mailed.
Efforts to make absentee voting easier are part of a national debate on how and when voters should be allowed to cast ballots, including challenges over new laws that require voters to present a valid photo ID and laws that shrink early- and absentee-voting time frames.
Wisconsin’s voter ID law likely won’t be in effect this November, as attorneys appeal the injunctions two judges have put on the law.
Andrea Kaminski, director of the nonpartisan League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, said she sometimes votes absentee so she can be at the league’s office on election day.
Absentee voting “seems to work well and if it makes it possible for more qualified citizens to be able to vote, then that’s a good thing,” Kaminski said.
Contact Kirsten Adshead at firstname.lastname@example.org.