Wisconsin remains a liberal state about giving voters freedom to cast ballots safely by mail or in advance, but don’t wait.
This article is part of COURIER’s Your Vote 2020 hub. For more stories from each of the battleground states, along with national reporting, visit the site here. And for more coverage designed to help you cast a ballot this fall, see our special page on the election: Your Vote Matters
This page covers the three methods for voting in the Nov. 3 election and how two of those methods become unavailable the closer we get to Election Day. This article was written prior to a Sept. 10 order by the Wisconsin Supreme Court putting a temporary hold on the distribution of absentee ballots, but the information remains valid for when absentee voting resumes.
OG Voting: In-Person on Election Day at Your Polling Place
Old Guys and other traditionalists who prefer kicking it old-school when voting still have the local polling place and the privacy of a voting booth available for use on Tuesday, Nov. 3 from 7 a.m. until 8 p.m. (or longer, if you’re still in line to vote at 8:00).
It is, of course, the classic voting method, but don’t take it for granted. There are now five states that run their elections entirely by mail. No bunting at a polling station. No warm greeting by Gladys at the check-in table. No “I Voted” sticker.
But also: No lines, no added risk of contracting coronavirus, and no awkward glances at your neighbor in line with you, the one whose lawn sign collection goes against everything you stand for.
So for now, in-person voting is still a thing, and all you need to bring with you is a proper ID. It’s also the only method for voting if you miss the deadlines for the other two options.
Requesting a Mailed Absentee Ballot
In a less mobile society, absentee ballots were typically restricted to shut-ins and voters deployed by the military. Today, it has become a useful method to make your right to vote more accessible so that your participation in democracy can’t be obstructed by working hours, travel plans, family commitments, transportation availability, and so on.
The National Conference of State Legislatures reports about two-thirds of states, including Wisconsin, no longer require an excuse in order to vote by absentee ballot.
The Wisconsin Election Commission can get you started with a request for an absentee ballot at their MyVote.WI.gov website. The first step on the website is checking to ensure you are a registered voter, then checking to make sure you’re eligible to vote in the next election. (These topics were covered in our article Wisconsin Voting 101.)
You can also request an absentee ballot by mail, email, or even use that fax machine you forgot about. Go to the official WEC absentee voting website to learn more.
And we haven’t forgotten the original three constituencies for an absentee ballot.
Those who the WEC defines as “indefinitely confined due to age, illness, infirmity, or disability” can request an absentee ballot be sent to them for each upcoming election and do not have the same Voter ID restriction.
Filling Out an Absentee Ballot Correctly
Everyone makes mistakes sometimes, but making a mistake on your ballot likely means your vote won’t be counted, whether it’s voting incorrectly in person or failing to follow the right steps on an absentee ballot. So read the accompanying instructions carefully.
The most important step to remember is to have a witness. This person does not need to see how you voted, only that they witnessed you filling out your ballot. The only other requirement of the witness is to put a signature and address on the proper line of the absentee ballot envelope (in Box No. 4).
The rest of the absentee ballot envelope must be filled out by the voter. Name, address, date of the election for that ballot (Nov. 3, 2020), and the municipality.
Be careful, though, because that municipality space can trip up some folks whose mailing address is the nearby city (say, Chippewa Falls) when they actually live outside of the city limits and should instead list where they truly reside (e.g., Town of Eagle Point).
Add a signature and seal your ballot inside.
Mailing an absentee ballot may feel odd the first time because of the name, address, and signature right there on the outside of the envelope. But nobody is allowed to see the actual ballot inside until a clerk or other election officer opens the envelope on election day and puts it into a counting machine.
The absentee ballot envelope usually tells the voter to “allow 4-5 days for delivery” because absentee ballots must be received by the time the polls close on election day. But because of the sharply higher popularity of absentee ballots in 2020 and the curiously timed cutbacks in service ordered by a President Trump mega-donor-turned-postmaster-general, most experts advise mailing absentee ballots by Oct. 27 to give the postal service seven days.
Putting an absentee ballot in the mail isn’t a voter’s only option.
Once the ballot is inside the envelope and sealed, it can be brought back to the clerk’s office during its hours of operation or it can be brought right to the polling place on election day before 8 p.m. and handed to a poll worker without the need to wait in line to cast a vote in person. Some municipalities also have secure drop boxes to make it even more convenient to officially cast a vote.
Early Voting: In-Person Absentee Ballots at Your Clerk’s Office
Your local election clerk is quite likely an unsung hero. Not only is she or he running a marathon of activities during and immediately after election day voting and managing the pre-election day sending and receiving of absentee ballots, your clerk is also likely to give you a friendly greeting if you stop by to vote early.
This early voting method is becoming more popular as organizers and activists of all sorts try to get votes “banked” prior to the polls opening. The goal is to then turn some of those early voters into volunteers themselves who now have the day free to encourage others to go vote in person.
There are only nine states that have no form of early voting, and the rest all set their own rules for when and how voters can cast a ballot prior to Election Day. The NCSL review of early voting periods shows a range from four to 45 days prior to an election.
A decision by a federal Appeals Court in late June upheld limits passed by Republicans in the Wisconsin Legislature that included a smaller window for early voting. In 2016, for example, both Milwaukee and Madison allowed voters to come in and fill out ballots as early as late September. But the law now says early in-person absentee voting cannot begin until 14 days prior to an election (Oct. 20 in this cycle) and must end the Sunday before an election (Nov. 1).
If you want to use this method during that 13-day voting window, start by checking the hours that your local clerk has set aside for early in-person voting. You can get your clerk’s information by typing your address into the MyVote.WI.gov website. Be sure to bring a valid ID.
Note that voting early by absentee ballot at your clerk’s office is a one-stop process. You cannot take an absentee ballot out of the clerk’s office and bring it back later. You truly are voting early. The completed absentee ballot is put inside an envelope, just as if you were mailing it from home—and like the envelopes that return by mail, all of the absentee ballots will be opened and fed into the counting machines at your polling place sometime on Election Day.
Learn more about making your vote count by continuing to follow our coverage on UpNorthNews Your Vote 2020: Make It Matter.