Wisconsin Republicans spread misinformation in elections roundtable

    An absentee ballots for the April 7 election. (Photo by Henry Redman)
    An absentee ballots for the April 7 election. (Photo by Henry Redman)

    Wisconsin Republican members of Congress attempted to cast doubt on the fairness and security of the state’s absentee ballot system in a virtual roundtable on Wisconsin election administration held Monday by Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Illinois), the highest ranking Republican member of the Committee on House Administration. 

    The goal of the roundtable was to address challenges facing election administrators as the country holds a presidential election during the COVID-19 pandemic, in addition to other concerns surrounding voting such as security and accuracy. 

    Rep. Glenn Grothman suggested that in-person absentee voting is unfair because local clerks in large cities such as Madison and Milwaukee have more available hours to drop off ballots than clerks in small towns and villages. 

    “Can we say we have fair elections in Milwaukee, if in a big Democrat city like Madison and Milwaukee, maybe you have 50 or 60 hours available to you for in-person absentee, and I live in the town of Green Bush and maybe three hours available for me, for absentee, can we really say we have fair elections in Wisconsin?” Grothman said. “When it varies dramatically so much, and it appears as though the rules are set to benefit voters in big, traditionally Democrat cities.”

    Marge Bostlemann, a Republican-appointed member of the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC), responded to Grothman by saying it wouldn’t make sense for small towns and big cities to have the same amount of in-person absentee availability. 

    In some of the state’s smallest municipalities, voters can set up appointments to drop off ballots while in the biggest cities clerk’s offices are open for the entire day in the two weeks before the election. 

    Bostlemann, who was the county clerk in Green Lake County, said that the state’s laws are set up so each individual community can accommodate its own voters. 

    “So each municipal clerk can decide for themselves how many hours it is required to serve their voters,” Bostlemann said. “Their job is to address their voters, their electors. The larger the municipality, the more hours and time they need to get the early voters in and out the door.” 

    Rep. Tom Tiffany, who was elected this spring during the COVID-19 pandemic, attempted to draw a distinction between mail-in voting and absentee voting — a false notion repeatedly spread by Republicans this summer

    In Wisconsin, mail-in voting and absentee voting are the same thing. 

    Any registered voter in the state can request an absentee ballot for whatever reason. To request a ballot, voters must provide a copy of a photo ID and their current address. Once the ballot is received, the voter must fill it out in the presence of a witness and both the voter and witness must sign the ballot. 

    To turn in the ballot, the voter can either drop it in the mail or take it to a local election official to drop off in person for early absentee voting. In-person drop off takes place during the 14 days before the election and hours are determined by local clerks. 

    State Rep. Kathy Bernier (R-Chippewa Falls) tried to paint mail-in voting as less secure than in-person voting because of issues with the United States Postal Service. 

    “One of the downfalls that the people who want all mail-in voting don’t understand is that you lose that chain of custody once it leaves the municipal clerk’s office, and it gets to you, and then you send it back again, we’re not exactly sure where everything is,” Bernier said. “And it is nowhere near as safe, secure and accurate as in-person voting.”

    Setting aside the Trump administration’s recent cuts to the USPS budget, states that have entirely all mail-in voting do not report higher levels of fraud or inaccuracy. Wisconsin’s April election did have some issues with ballots not reaching voters in time and some ballots were disqualified because of mistakes by voters or the lack of a postmark on the returned ballot envelope. 

    However, the postmark requirement was added by a court order shortly before the April 7 election — a requirement that won’t be included in the fall election because it is not in state election statutes. The WEC also addressed concerns about losing ballots in the mail in April when it voted unanimously to include intelligent mail barcodes on future ballots. The barcodes will allow voters and officials to track ballots through the mail and correct any problems  that arise. 

    WEC Administrator Meagan Wolfe said at the roundtable that the barcodes will allow officials to see trends in mailed ballots and respond in real time by cancelling the first batch and resending the ballots if it is clear that ballots have been lost.  

    The WEC is scheduled to meet Sept. 1 and its agenda includes the discussion of a report on “How Wisconsin is Ready for November 3, 2020 Election.” Wisconsin’s first round of absentee ballots is mandated by statute to be put into the mail 47 days before the election, Sept. 17. 

    Davis said his goal in holding the roundtable was to find any gaps that need to be filled to help election administrators before Nov. 3. Davis previously held a similar roundtable with officials from his home state of Illinois and plans to hold another one with officials from Georgia.

    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.