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How the fight over mail-in ballots and election laws is playing out in Wisconsin

Voters fill out ballots on Wisconsin's state primary day on Aug. 9, 2022 at Concord Community Center in Sullivan, WI. (Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images)
Voters fill out ballots on Wisconsin's state primary day on Aug. 9, 2022 at Concord Community Center in Sullivan, WI. (Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images)

Absentee ballots are already on their way out to voters in Wisconsin, one of the most closely watched states in this year’s midterm elections.

Wisconsin has just about as many active registered voters right now as it did this time in 2020 — one sign that interest in voting next month is higher than usual for a midterm election.

In 2020, Wisconsin saw an explosion in the number of people who voted by mail and used absentee drop boxes, mostly thanks to the pandemic. Led by former President Donald Trump, many Republicans seized on those changes to spread baseless claims of voter fraud. Wisconsin Republicans hired a special counsel to investigate, but he found no evidence of widespread fraud.

The fight over how elections are run remains a campaign issue in the midterms, with Republicans working to overhaul the state’s election laws if they win the gubernatorial  race — even if some high-profile lawmakers have backed off from calls to “decertify” the previous election.

“The problems still exist in 2020,” State Assembly Speaker Robin Vos told WISN in August. “Nothing about this doesn’t say that we’re not serious about solving the election fraud and things that we saw in 2020, but we also know that we cannot keep harping on it if we’re going to move forward into 2022 and hopefully win the election.”

Republican lawmakers have passed more than a dozen election measures to fix those “problems” as Vos called them, including new restrictions on absentee voting and proposals to give control of the state’s traditionally-nonpartisan Elections Commission to partisan officials.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers has vetoed them all. Instead, policymaking around elections is now mostly done by courts, says Barry Burden, director of the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“We get, as a result, kind of a jerky set of policies where things get decided in surprising fashion,” Burden says. “So I think it’s actually a challenge for voters just to keep up with what is happening when courts are the ones now making policy.”

‘The chipping away won’t work’

In July, a judge ordered cities to stop using absentee ballotdrop boxes. In September, another ordered election clerks not tofill in missing information on witness certification envelopes that contain absentee ballots, potentially disqualifying some ballots because they’re missing a zip code.

Democrats and voting rights groups have effectively pushed back on other rulings, including one that banned people from turning in someone else’s absentee ballot.

That’s crucial for Martha Chambers; she’s paralyzed from the neck down. But the court had said voters like her couldn’t have someone else turn in their ballot. A federal court agreed with Chambers and overturned the ruling.

“I was happy,” Chambers says. “And then part of me was, well, wait a minute, why did we ever have to do this to begin with? We should have been able to vote just like anybody else.”

The legal back-and-forth has already had an impact in marginalized communities, says Anita Johnson. She’s with Souls to the Polls in Milwaukee, a voting rights and get-out-the-vote organization focused on Black communities.

“Voting is already confusing,” she says. “So when you put these other little things with it, yes, it’s going to affect seniors, people with disabilities, people of color, because they’re going to say, forget it, I’m not going to vote.”

Voting rights activist Shauntay Nelson says frustrating voters is part of the point. She’s the Wisconsin state director for the group All Voting is Local.

“There has been a real attempt by some individuals in the state to limit the voice of Black and Brown people within our electoral process,” she says.

Nelson calls the ban on drop boxes “devastating” and says restrictions on voting are designed to depress turnout.

“I don’t believe that it will work, particularly with Black and Brown people,” says Nelson, a Black woman. “Once you press us and you tell us we cannot do something, we will find a way. So the chipping away won’t work. It literally will force people to show you that we’re not going to be moved and our voice will not be silenced.”

Black voter turnout could swing the races for governor and U.S. Senate. But while overall turnout was at an all-time high in 2020, Black-majority wards saw fewer votes cast than in 2016.

Democrats hope that was a blip due largely to the pandemic. And while Republicans would benefit from low turnout in heavily Democratic Milwaukee County — where nearly 70% of the state’s Black population lives — Republicans say they’re not pushing election reforms to keep people from voting.

Mark Jefferson, executive director of the Wisconsin Republican Party, says Republicans just want to go back to how things were before the pandemic, with fewer options for voting absentee.

“I think the pandemic was used by the Democrats and a lot of Democrat election officials as an excuse to circumvent a lot of protections that have been in place for years,” he says. “They shouldn’t have gotten away with it in the first place. And they most certainly shouldn’t get away with it in perpetuity.”

Wisconsin Republicans have recruited thousands of poll workers and observers since 2020. Not to intimidate Democratic voters, Jefferson says, but to keep Republicans newly energized by election issues engaged.

“We want people involved. We want them to feel good about the process. The more people that you get involved with observing, with participating, the more transparency you have in these elections,” he says, “the more faith people start having in these elections and having faith in the results.”

 ‘A loss of trust’

When it comes to restoring faith in elections, civil rights groups say Republicans are doing just the opposite by flirting with or even pushing conspiracy theories about the 2020 election.

“We do see some loss of trust and it’s very disturbing,” says Debra Cronmiller, executive director of the Wisconsin League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan group. “This is a narrative that has begun for the purpose of getting that conversation started in people’s minds who want to believe that narrative.”

The League of Women Voters recently hired someone to combat misinformation about voting, she says. Since 2020, they started spending money on advertising for the first time.

“Protecting voting rights has somehow become part of an agenda. It’s like, no, that’s part of the Constitution. That’s part of what makes our democracy function,” Cronmiller says. “When too many people stay back, too many people think to themselves that this isn’t a high-integrity process. Something’s gone wrong with our democracy.”

It’s not just voting rights groups. Election administrators also say something has changed in Wisconsin since 2020.

Claire Woodall-Vogg, executive director of Milwaukee’s Election Commission in her office in Milwaukee City Hall. (Chris Bentley/Here & Now)

Milwaukee’s Election Commission has been inundated with public records requests, lawsuits and, disturbingly, threats against director Claire Woodall-Vogg.

“I think it’s definitely festering underneath the surface,” Woodall-Vogg says. “It’s just a matter of time before more people are hurt, just like we saw on Jan. 6.”

The stress is taking a toll. Milwaukee’s Elections Commission has seen five of its nine full-time employees leave since 2020. The city raised salaries to entice people to stay and refilled every position — one worker who quit actually returned this week, Woodall-Vogg says.

At the same time, Woodall-Vogg says it’s getting easier to recruit poll workers, formally called election inspectors. She says that’s helping her combat misinformation about voting.

“We have trained our election inspectors on a lot more of the internal dynamics. We have signs on our machines letting voters know how they work. Our machines are never connected to the Internet. They use private cell modems at the end of the night to transmit results,” says Woodall-Vogg. “So what we’re doing is we’re trying to communicate far more with the public than ever before.”

During the pandemic, more than 110,000 voters in Milwaukee cast absentee ballots by mail, roughly 10 times as many as in previous elections. Woodall-Vogg says they’ve issued 33,250 ballots for the November election so far and expect to get up to 40,000 by the end of the month — still a three-fold increase from pre-pandemic elections.

Woodall-Vogg says that change is permanent, and a good thing for democracy. All the attention on voting access has also compelled more people to learn about the system, vote early or otherwise make a plan to vote, she says.

But changes could be coming.

“I think that all of the writing is on the wall for it to become more difficult for you to vote in Wisconsin,” Woodall-Vogg says. She points to proposals to move away from electronic voting machines, which have been floated in Wisconsin and other key states.

Republican candidate Tim Michels has promised to call a special session to “fix the election mess” on day one. If he wins that would be the end of Democrats’ veto power from incumbent Evers.

Barry Burden, professor of Political Science and director of the Elections Research Center in his office at the University of Wisconsin Madison. (Chris Bentley/Here & Now)

“You’re going to see I think a foot on the gas pedal in terms of election laws if Tim Michels is elected governor and probably continued stalemate and lawsuits if Evers holds on,” says professor Barry Burden.

No matter who the governor is, the courts will still have a say. There’s a state supreme court election next year, too, that will determine which party holds the judicial majority, and could influence just how much election laws change between now and the next presidential election in 2024.

“If Wisconsin becomes fully controlled by Republicans, we’ve seen the legislation, we’ve seen party platforms suggest hand counting ballots on Election Day, which is just absolutely insane to think that a hand count on Election Day across the city at 180 polling places would be more accurate than a machine,” Woodall-Vogg says. “It’s a little terrifying, in fact.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.