The lame-duck legislation limiting early voting in Wisconsin could mean longer lines for early voters if it becomes law, local clerks say.
The proposal to limit in-person absentee voting likely will be challenged in court, as was a similar proposal in 2016, when a court injunction kept it from taking effect, said Rock County Clerk Lisa Tollefson.
A federal judge later ruled the law unconstitutional.
However, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has said he believes courts will approve the new measure because unlike the 2016 bill, it allows early voting at night and on weekends.
If Gov. Scott Walker signs the bill, and if courts don’t block it, then it likely will mean longer lines for early voters, said Janesville Clerk-Treasurer Dave Godek.
Critics—mostly Democrats—see the measure as another attempt to limit voting, which tends to favor Republican candidates.
Would longer lines discourage voting?
“I’m not sure that it would. They may end up coming another day or coming to the polls on Election Day,” Tollefson said. “It’s hard to say how people are going to be affected by those lines. There’s so many situations for why they would be early voting.”
It’s hard to tell how most people would react in that situation, Godek said.
Clerks in each municipality now set their own early-voting hours. The only restriction is that early voting is not allowed the Monday before Election Day.
Tollefson said Beloit and Janesville allowed four weeks in the Nov. 6 elections, while some towns have two- or three-week windows.
All the clerks in Rock County set the early-voting window at six weeks before the 2016 presidential election, Godek said. It was an effort to provide standardization, but some clerks found they didn’t need that much time.
“Municipal clerks really do know their areas and what’s needed,” Tollefson said.
For example, schools’ spring breaks sometimes fall on spring Election Day, and sometimes they don’t, Tollefson said. So clerks would know if there’s a greater need in a particular year for more absentee voting, a nuance the Legislature isn’t going to see, she said.
Tollefson noted that early voting can’t begin until ballots are printed, and laws require they be printed by 21 days before nonfederal elections and 47 days before a federal election.
Godek said most early voting takes place in the last two weeks. In Janesville for the last election, 3,429 of the 4,259 early votes were cast in the last two weeks, and there were lines.
Pushing all those votes into two weeks would add about 80 people per day and make those lines longer, Godek said.
Another possible outcome of changing the law could be more people requesting absentee ballots by mail. The bill awaiting the governor’s signature doesn’t affect the time allowed for mail-in ballots.
Godek said 2,174 Janesville voters mailed their absentee ballots in the last election.
The municipality must mail those ballots to the voters and provide postage-paid envelopes for voters to mail them back, which costs about $1 per voter, Godek said. So that’s an additional $4,000 if 4,000 early in-person voters switch to the mail.
That’s not a significant cost for the city budget, but it is significant for the elections budget, Godek said.
In addition to postage, the municipality must pay for the specially printed envelopes and for workers’ time to stick stamps on each envelope, which is required, Godek said.
Tollefson said clerks saw “a huge increase” in mail-in absentee voting in the last election. It takes just one click on the state’s “My Vote” website to have an absentee ballot sent to the voter.
Town clerks have noted an increase in requests through the website, she said.
Godek said it’s hard to tell why the Legislature wanted the change, other than to read public statements in which backers said they wanted to give equal voting opportunity to all voters.
But the bill doesn’t take into account the differing needs of a city such as Janesville, with about 44,000 eligible voters, versus much smaller numbers in a town, Godek said.
Walworth County Clerk Kim Bushey could not be reached for comment Thursday.