With only a few short detours into partisan bickering, the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC) approved spending more than $6 million in grant money provided to the state by the federal CARES Act to help administer elections during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The money will go toward mailing an absentee ballot application to most registered voters, helping local clerks pay for supplies and equipment and adding intelligent bar codes to absentee ballots so they can be better tracked through the mail.
The most controversial action was the mailing of the ballot applications, which will be sent to every registered voter except those who already have an application on file for the remaining 2020 elections and those who are on the state’s list of voters who have moved.
The effort will cost $2,252,035 and was unanimously approved by the commission. The specific language of the mailing will need to be approved by the commission — which is split evenly between Democratic and Republican appointed members — before being sent.
The board nearly didn’t pass the motion after it got into a bitter fight over whether or not approval of the letter was needed after being written by WEC staff.
Democratic commissioners Ann Jacobs and Mark Thomsen wanted to avoid “micromanaging” the staff, while the rest of the commission wanted control over a letter that will be sent to more than 2 million Wisconsinites.
Thomsen was especially skeptical that the commission — which frequently splits votes down party lines — will be able to reach a consensus on the letter and its language, potentially preventing the mailing from being sent.
“We’re going to have 3 million people voting in November and we’re still going to be in the middle of a pandemic,” Thomsen said. “And we have lost rational sense, if we don’t send this letter out, if we don’t think together that [WEC Administrator Megan Wolfe] and her staff can send a letter … We have never micromanaged like that. Well, because this is what I see happening, we come back and then we’re going to sit there and somebody’s gonna say, ‘Oh I don’t like this letter,’ and then we’re stuck in 3-3 [a tied vote of the commission’s six members] and we got all this money and then what happens to it?”
But apart from Thomsen and Jacobs, the commissioners felt it was important the letter get approval.
“I really don’t have a problem with the commission looking at the letter before we send it out,” Democratic-appointed Commissioner Julie Glancey said. “I am a little afraid that it could break down into a lot of partisan bickering over one thing or another because that seems to be our trend lately. But I really think that it’s important that the letter come from the commission.”
Aside from the back and forth over the letter, the other two aspects of the CARES grant funding passed without much fuss.
A 4-2 vote created a sub-grant program that will give each municipality a base of $200 plus $1.10 for each registered voter. The total program will cost $4,126,528.
The grant money will allow local elections clerks to cover their costs for the remaining elections this year.
Finally, a 6-0 vote approved an effort to include intelligent mail barcodes on future absentee ballot envelopes so they can be better tracked through the mail. After Wisconsin’s April 7 election, reports of missing ballots and problems with the postal service came in from across the state.
The motion approved $400,000 to cover the cost of implementing the barcodes and covering WEC staff expenses from April and May.
The WEC is next scheduled to meet June 10 when it is expected to address the language on the absentee ballot application letter.