An absentee ballot for the upcoming presidential election. (Photo by Pat Kreitlow)
An absentee ballot for the upcoming presidential election. (Photo by Pat Kreitlow)

Evers: Should we expect more people to stay safe and vote from home? “Hell, yes!”   

Despite the state pulling off a presidential election in a pandemic that election officials and clerks have widely deemed successful, Wisconsin Republicans are preparing new measures that would limit voter access for those who put safety first. 

Sen. Kathy Bernier (R-Lake Halle), who heads the Senate elections committee, told WISN-TV’s UpFront on Sunday that Republicans plan to limit the use of “indefinitely confined” absentee ballot applications, arguing that status was supposed to be reserved for the “frail elderly and developmentally disabled.” More applicants for indefinitely confined absentee ballots were submitted due to the COVID-19 pandemic and do not require a photo ID.

“That is just horrible.That is just wrong,” Bernier said. “That is not what that provision was for, and we will have to go back and fix it.”

Gov. Tony Evers told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in an interview that he was open to some election reform but opposed any changes that would limit people’s ability to cast a ballot, noting that he sees no issue with voters using the indefinitely confined status during a global pandemic.

“I’d have to see (the proposals) obviously, but the idea that we’re going to solve these problems by making voting more difficult — I just can’t accept,” he said. “Should we have expected the number of people falling into that category, and requesting or taking advantage of staying home in the middle of a pandemic, should we have expected it to go up? Hell, yes.”

Earlier this month, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that state law allows each voter to make the determination of whether they qualify as indefinitely confined due to age, physical illness, or infirmity. It is not clear how Republican lawmakers would alter a voter’s right to self-determination. 

Due largely to safety concerns about community spread of the highly contagious and potentially lethal coronavirus, the number of voters requesting absentee ballots skyrocketed in the state’s 2020 elections. In April during the first pandemic election, 194,544 absentee ballots were cast by voters who claimed “indefinitely confined” status. Four years earlier that figure was 55,334.

At a Joint Committee on Campaigns and Elections hearing held earlier this month, Wisconsin Election Commissioner Dean Knudson testified that, “there was no credible evidence voter fraud occurred.”

Barry Burden, director of the Elections Research Center at University of Wisconsin, told UpNorth News at that time that while all indicators show that the Nov. 3 election went smoothly, there are always areas where the system could be improved. However, Burden’s suggestions were intended to make voting more accessible, not less.

On another election matter, Bernier, who previously served as the Chippewa County Clerk, said she supports allowing people who cast in-person absentee ballots to place their ballots into a tabulator—as is done at polling places—reducing the number of absentee ballots to be counted Election Day and any potential issues with those ballots’ envelopes.

However, Bernier said she does not support pre-counting, which would change current rules restricting the opening and tabulating of absentee ballots until 7 a.m. on election day, often leading to results not being announced until the middle of the night. She claimed that many county clerks may support pre-counting but not  municipal clerks who she argued are too busy preparing for Election Day to start counting absentee ballots  a day or more before. She claimed election observers could leak the absentee tallies to the media.