City of Fitchburg
As Ald. Gabriella Gerhardt (Dist. 2) was calling Fitchburg voters on Election Day to remind them to vote, she was dismayed to hear that one person wasn’t planning on voting because he had not received his absentee ballot.
He told her his mail had already come and he had decided not to go to the polling place because of concerns over the spread of COVID-19.
“I knew that was going to happen,” she told the Star, “but to actually talk to somebody that had that type of disappointment and that disenfranchisement was emotional.”
Gerhardt and Ald. Joe Maldonado (D-1) plan to bring forward a resolution to the Common Council that would educate people on how to vote absentee in advance of the November presidential election. That resolution would mail out voting information – how to register online or contact the city clerk if they don’t have internet access, and what information is required to receive a ballot and make it count.
They expect the proposal to go through city committees to consider costs and how far the reach would be – whether it’s all registered voters, or only registered voters who have not already requested an absentee ballot.
The proposal is a result of a political fight between the governor and the state Legislature that got settled in two different courts about how to hold the April 7 election in the weeks and days leading up to it.
As COVID-19 spread in Wisconsin during March, municipalities and state officials started to encourage voters to opt for absentee ballots over voting in person. That required clerk’s offices across the state to work overtime to get voters their ballots in time, some of which never arrived or were invalidated by a lack of a witness signature. In the City of Fitchburg, 166 absentee ballots were invalidated by the lack of a witness signature.
A federal judge extended absentee voting deadlines the week before the election, but the U.S. Supreme Court mostly rescinded those. And when Gov. Tony Evers attempted to move in-person voting to June 12 through an executive order on the day before the election, the state Supreme Court quickly ruled it was an overreach of power.
Maldonado said the challenges that came with the April 7 election is partly what inspired them to look toward a voter education initiative.
It led Maldonado to feel conflicted over the message he was sending to voters, he said, because he didn’t want people to feel like they should risk getting infected with COVID-19 to vote for either him or his opponent.
“In some way, (the April 7 election) forced people to choose between risking their health and not exercising their civic right,” he said. “I couldn’t, in good conscience, ask people to risk their health.”
Gerhardt said having a voter education outreach program also helps the clerk’s office to plan in advance for the workload that will come with preparing absentee ballots if they have an idea of how many requests will come in. Most Fitchburg voters opted for absentee ballots in the April 7 election, totalling 7,866 votes, far more than the 1,048 absentee ballots cast in April 2019.
Gerhardt added that she believes getting information out to Fitchburg voters about the process for voting absentee was helped by having a contested race in every district, but she was worried about what will happen in the fall, when the only local candidates on the ballot are for the state legislature.
“I don’t think there’s going to be as much of that personal, one-to-one outreach,” she said. “I think that the city taking action to encourage people to sign up early is going to be an important part of making sure it happens.”