Absentee ballot rejections could disproportionately harm people of color, ACLU report shows

    A older voter brought a chair rather than stand for at least an hour. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)
    A older voter in Milwaukee brought a chair to his polling place on April 7, rather than stand for at least an hour. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)

    Wisconsin voters are voting by mail in record numbers this year, many of them people of color in Milwaukee and Dane counties. This shift to mail-in voting and the potential pitfalls of that method may disproportionately affect the votes of non-white people, an ACLU report shows. 

    The report finds that non-white voters are 5% more likely to vote by mail than white voters this year. This difference, and the concentration of those votes in a small number of critical counties in Wisconsin and other states, could leave voters susceptible to disenfranchisement.

    This year, “ensuring every mail-in ballot is counted is more important than ever,” the report states. “Moreover, voters of color are even more likely to vote by mail than white voters. Any attempt to interfere with a full count of mail-in ballots or unfairly reject those ballots would disproportionately disenfranchise communities of color, the very constituencies historically disenfranchised, and distort election outcomes.”

    Absentee ballots in Wisconsin must arrive by 8 p.m. on Election Day, even if they were mailed ahead of time. Ballot envelopes must also contain the signatures and addresses of both the voter and a witness. 

    These conditions mean some ballots will be discounted

    The extra time it takes to count absentee ballots also leaves the state vulnerable, the report says. The results of in-person votes will be available earlier, meaning the choice of the state’s white voters will be available earlier than that of many of its non-white voters. 

    “Can attempts to suppress the by-mail vote and the voices of voters of color — whether through delays, ballot rejections, or outright interference with the full count — change the outcomes of the election? Absolutely,” the report states. 

    The report finds that the mail-in votes of Dane and Milwaukee counties could shift each county’s results by huge margins — 12.9% in Dane and 14.3% in Milwaukee. 

    “We must remember that the early reported results — likely from in-person voting — will disproportionately represent the voices of white voters,” the report states. “This year, discounting the mail-in vote will surely disenfranchise voters of color and distort the election outcome. Ensuring that every vote — whether cast by mail, early, or in-person on Election Day — is counted must be the responsibility and priority of election officials everywhere. Voters, not politicians, must decide the outcome.”

    At this point, elections officials recommend avoiding the U.S. Postal Service for ballot return — instead dropping absentee ballots at municipal drop boxes or in local clerks’ offices.

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    Henry Redman
    Henry Redman is a staff reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner who focuses on covering Wisconsin's towns and rural areas. He previously covered crime and courts at the Daily Jefferson County Union. A lifelong Midwesterner, he was born in Cleveland, Ohio and graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a degree in journalism in May 2019.