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Partisan politics create pessimism in a pandemic
WEC CARES Grant budget

WISCONSIN - At their teleconference meeting on Wednesday, May 20, the Wisconsin Election Commission (WEC) took another step in preparing to safely administer the upcoming August and November elections.

The Wisconsin Election Commission has approved spending $7.2 million in federal CARES Act funding, including a $4.1 million block grant program to help local and state election officials and voters prepare for Fall 2020 elections amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Of three motions proposed by WEC staff, two seemed to garner easy consensus among the six commissioners. Those two were:

Motion #1: The Commission directs WEC staff to administer a CARES Act sub-grant to local election officials at the rate of $1.10 per registered voter (with a $200 minimum), not to exceed a total cost of more than $4,126,528.

Motion #3: The Commission directs staff not to pursue the redesign of the absentee ballot certificate envelope in 2020 and further directs staff to incorporate intelligent mail barcodes into the existing design and to issue best practices to local election officials on how to maximize usability of the current envelope design.

“Our revised proposal for the sub grants provides more flexibility for local clerks about how those funds can be spent,” WEC Administrator Meagan Wolfe explained. “While we still anticipate that most of the funds will be spent on postage, it allows for other expenditures in order to prepare to hold elections in August and November in the middle of a pandemic.”

Clerks will have discretion to spend the funds on postage, ballot and envelope printing, cleaning supplies and PPE, additional staff to process absentee ballots, mailings, drop-box installation and security, leasing of new polling places as-needed, and equipment.

According to WEC’s Nate Judnic, clerks who choose to avail themselves of the sub grant funds (base $200 plus $1.10 per registered voter in their jurisdiction) will be required to sign an agreement about how funds can be spent, and how records will be kept. 

After the 2020 elections are over, clerks will be required to file a report, and to return any unspent funds by December 15. Requiring clerks to keep track of expenses for conducting elections during a pandemic above and beyond their yearly budgets and sub grant funds will help WEC to document matching funds for the federal CARES grant funding received.

After much discussion, both motions were passed unanimously by the commission. Staff had consulted with mailing experts in state government and the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) to determine that intelligent mailing barcodes (IMB) could be added to the current envelope without a complete redesign.

Mailing discussion

It was the second motion proposed by WEC staff that caused the most controversy. That motion was:

Motion #2: The Commission directs staff to prepare a draft mailer for the Commission’s review and approval at the June 10 meeting. The Commission further directs staff to prepare for the mailing to be sent to [categories of voters] for a total cost not to exceed $________.

“While Commission staff have no mandate, or desire, to promote one form of voting over another, staff anticipate that the COVID-19 crisis may continue to generate interest in the absentee voting process through the November General Election,” Wolfe said. “Commission staff therefore propose an official mailing to voters who may not be familiar with the absentee process.”

Republicans on the commission (Knudson, Spindell, Bostelmann) followed president Trump’s lead in opposing elections conducted by mail as “ensuring no Republican would ever be elected again.”

“This is not just a simple letter,” commissioner Spindell stated. “Commissioners Thomsen and Jacobs are trying to push the Democratic mission of having all elections conducted absentee by mail. We know that Republicans are better at voting in-person, and Democrats are better at voting by mail.” 

Democrats on the commission (Thomsen, Jacobs, Glancey) insisted that the trend of voter’s choosing to vote by mail would continue into the August and November elections, with no guarantee there would not be additional waves of COVID-19 outbreaks. They insisted it was necessary to prepare now in order to avoid a surge of last minute requests and overwhelming local election clerks as had happened just prior to the April 7 election.

“Staff are trying to address a large need, and to act on the absentee ballot report we adopted unanimously at our last meeting,” commissioner Thomsen said. “That report urged us to vigorously support state voters being able to exercise their constitutional right to vote.”

Thomsen stated that when he had chaired the commission, the body had avoided micromanaging staff in WEC communications.

“Bob [Spindell], if you want to micromanage, you’re in the wrong job,” Thomsen said. “If you want to micromanage you should be on the WEC staff and not the election commission.”

Commissioner Bostelmann spoke to say that before a mailing went out to 2.1 million voters, she felt it was important for WEC commissioners to see what it said.

Commissioner Jacobs referenced the many instances in recent meetings of partisan bickering and votes. She stated that she believed that the commission would argue about the content of the letter, word by word, and that in the end might very well fail to agree. This, she said, could result in no mailing being sent.

“I hope that you can have more trust that the commision’s discussion of the content of the letter in the mailing won’t break down into division,” Chairman Knudson told Thomsen and Jacobs.

“We have seen a lot of 3:3 votes due to partisan politics on this commission,” Thomsen responded. “I have a hard time seeing us getting the 4:2 vote needed to ensure that this mailing goes out.”

“Letting the staff lead means that both sides on this issue will be taking a risk,” Jacobs said. “I am worried that the language will be too watered down in encouraging absentee voting by mail, and you’re worried that the options of voting in-person on election day, or absentee in-person early voting won’t be emphasized enough.”

“The Commission is in charge of this process, not the staff, and I am not going to give up my authority,” Spindell said. “This is an important policy issue and not micromanagement.”
WEC absentee ballot mailing groups
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Mailing vote

In their presentation of options for what groups of voters would receive the mailing, WEC staff provided the commissioners with five options. Those were:

1.     All registered voters (3.4 million recipients, $2,818,740)

2.     All registered voters with an absentee ballot application on file (almost 2.9 million recipients, $2,382,559)

3.     All registered voters with an absentee ballot application on file and all voters on the ‘movers’ list (about 2.7 million recipients, $2,252,035)

4.     All registered voters with an absentee ballot application on file and voters who had uploaded a photo ID into MyVote (about 2.3 million recipients, $1,943,900)

5.     Only voters who do not have an absentee ballot application on file, who have not uploaded a photo ID into MyVote, and who are not on the ‘movers’ list (almost 2.2 million recipients, $1,813,376)

Commissioner Jacobs immediately moved that the commission instruct staff to prepare and send the mailing without another meeting where the commission would review and approve the letter, using option two for intended recipients and cost.

Commissioner Thomsen offered a friendly amendment that was accepted by Jacobsen to add approval of spending the approximately $400,000 to ensure that absentee ballot envelopes would contain smart barcodes.

The motion failed on a 3:3 vote along partisan political lines.

Chairman Knudson then moved, and Glancey seconded approval of staff motion number two, selecting option number three.

The motion passed unanimously. The board has scheduled another meeting on June 10 where commissioners will review a draft letter produced by WEC staff, as well as a timeline for the mailing. At that meeting they will possibly provide approval for it to move forward.

Mailing timeline

WEC’s Rob Kehoe reported that, upon direction from the commission at their May 20 meeting, WEC staff had revised the timeline for the mailing from late June to late August.

“The key dates in WEC staff’s proposal are for commission approval of the letter on June 10, selection of the final mailing list by July 1, and putting out the mailing by September 1,” Kehoe said.  “We will wait until July 1 to select the final mailing list from MyVote because those numbers are literally changing day-by-day as more voters are taking action in the system – that’s why our numbers at this point are basically just good guesses.”