Dane and Milwaukee County Clerks Directing Voters to Break the Law, Non-Partisan Legislative Reference Bureau Warns

Local Officials Exploiting Photo ID Law Loopholes, Encouraging Absentee Voters to Lie on Forms

Lawsuits Claim In-Person Voting Not Possible, Demand Absentee Voting Only

Evers Says National Guard Will Man the Polls if Necessary to Keep Them Open

MacIver News Service | Mar. 26, 2020 (Updated Mar. 27, 2020)

By Bill Osmulski

Despite the coronavirus pandemic, Wisconsin’s Spring General Election is fully underway, but some public officials could be exploiting the crisis to skirt state law and maybe force a catastrophe requiring federal intervention.

Gov. Tony Evers and legislative leaders do not want to reschedule the election. Tens of thousands of people in Wisconsin have already cast ballots during early voting and absentee voting.

Milwaukee and Dane Counties held in-person absentee voting starting on Monday Mar. 16th for several days before shutting it down early. The Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC) says they could have kept the polls open and that voting is exempt from Gov. Evers’ shelter-in-place order.

Throughout the state, about 700,000 people have requested absentee ballots, and 156,000 have already been returned. There were about 600,000 voters, who requested absentee ballots in the Fall 2018 General Election.

Exploiting Absentee Voting Loopholes

This increase in absentee voting creates certain risk to election integrity, which have not gone unnoticed. Election officials in Dane and Milwaukee are actively encouraging people to lie on their absentee ballot requests to get around the state’s voter ID law.

Milwaukee County Clerk George Christenson explained “I urge all voters who request a ballot and do not have the ability or equipment to upload a valid ID to indicate that they are indefinitely confined because this is a pandemic and this option exists in state law to help preserve everyone’s right to vote.”

Being confined due to a pandemic is not an acceptable excuse according WEC’s website. Voters are only excused from the requirement it they are “indefinitely confined due to age, illness, infirmity, or disability.”

Knowing that many voters are uncomfortable lying on government forms, Dane County Clerk Scott McDonell did it for them.

“I am declaring all Dane County voters may indicate as needed that they are indefinitely confined due to illness,” McDonell wrote in an email to his county clerks on Mar. 25th. “People are reluctant to check the box that says they are indefinitely confined but this is a pandemic.  This feature in our law is here to help preserve everyone’s right to vote.”

“If a voter votes absentee knowing that he or she is not confined because of age, illness, infirmity, or disability, he or she could not only face civil and criminal penalties, but also have their vote challenged during the canvass.”

The Legislative Reference Bureau disagrees.

“It would not be appropriate to encourage voters to claim to be indefinitely confined because of the governors ‘safer at home’ order as a way to avoid presenting voter identification when requesting an absentee ballot,” LRB wrote in a memorandum on Mar. 26th.

Voters who follow McDonell and Christenson’s advice, LRB continued, would be breaking the law.

“If a voter votes absentee knowing that he or she is not confined because of age, illness, infirmity, or disability, he or she could not only face civil and criminal penalties, but also have their vote challenged during the canvass. A court would need to determine whether a voter, in committing this act, relied in good faith on the instructions of a municipal clerk,” LRB wrote in a memorandum on Mar. 26th.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos rebuked McDonell and Christenson, “They’re threatening the integrity of elections and needlessly exposing voters to disenfranchisement.”

Lawsuits To Eliminate In-Person Voting

Meanwhile, the Democratic National Committee and the Wisconsin Democratic Party sued the state on Mar. 19th to move the deadline for absentee voting and completely remove photo ID and proof-of-residency requirements for absentee voting.

Then, on Mar. 26th, the City of Green Bay and its city clerk filed a lawsuit against the state in federal court. It wants the federal government to cancel in-person voting in Wisconsin on Apr. 7th and to conduct the election entirely through the mail. The city clerk, Kris Teske, claims she cannot comply with both the Wisconsin Elections Commissions rules on conducting elections and the Department of Health Services directives for social distancing.

Evers Moves To Ensure In-Person Voting

WEC is way ahead of Teske. On Mar. 20th it sent a letter to Gov. Evers asking for support and resources to enable local governments to hold in-person voting. Evers’ legal team responded that same day to explain the state was already taking steps to support clerks around the state.

“As Gov. Evers has publicly stated, he will call upon the Wisconsin National Guard if these efforts are not enough.”

The State Emergency Operations Center’s top priority is securing shipments of hand sanitize and cleaning supplies for the polling locations, according to the Evers’ Administration.

The state has also established a task force to ensure there are enough poll workers on election day. It’s been coordinating with volunteer groups like AmeriCorps and the United Way. Gov. Evers is even prepared to activate the National Guard to work the polls, if necessary, on election day.

Evers’ has also directed DHS to work with WEC to establish guidelines for elections officials’ peace of mind. All this was set into motion days before Teske filed her lawsuit.

Publicly, Evers has been clear that he is not interested in moving the election date. He acknowledges that it would require a law change anyway. Legislative leaders maintain it is too late in the game to change it now. As far as the State of Wisconsin is concerned, the election will happen on April 7th outbreak or no outbreak.