Photo by Saiyna Bashir, The Capital Times

The Wisconsin Elections Commission on Wednesday unanimously backed a proposal to send roughly 2.7 million voters an absentee ballot application.

Staffers anticipate just 1 percent of recipients will respond to the mailing, which will cost around $2.3 million. But staff said the anticipated response rate was a “crude estimate” based on experience with past mailings.

The mailing was one of three proposals for spending money allocated by a federal coronavirus relief package first considered at a meeting last week. But a vote was pushed back to Wednesday’s meeting after GOP Chair Dean Knudson recommended a number of changes.

The final mailing is set to go to all registered voters in the state — except those who have already requested an absentee ballot and those who may have moved and have not confirmed their address.

The commission also approved a grant program that would send each municipality $200 plus $1.10 for each registered voter to cover upcoming costs.

But the unanimous vote on the mailing was not without partisan debate. It only came after the commission split along party lines and two of the panel’s Dems sought to scrap a mailing from the state.

The commission first split 3-3 after Dem Ann Jacobs moved the mailing should be sent without commission oversight of language included in an instructional letter that is set to accompany the application.

Jacobs and fellow Dem Mark Thomsen argued the commission had more important business than “micromanaging” the staff. Republicans — led by Knudson and Bob Spindell, who labeled Jacob’s idea “terrible” and “not acceptable” — countered the mailing was important enough to warrant oversight.

“I’m not giving them my responsibility as a state of Wisconsin Elections commissioner,” Spindell said. “This is an extremely important letter, and I don’t want the letter biased towards the (absentee mail-in process).”

Thomsen then moved to cancel the statewide absentee ballot application mailing at the statewide level and roll the funding into a grant program the commission approved earlier in the meeting. Anticipating the commission would split along partisan lines when it came to approving the language in the instructional letter, Thomsen reasons municipalities would be better off handling the mailing themselves.

Both former clerks on the panel, Republican Marge Bostlemann and Dem Julie Glancey, strongly disagreed, noting the original intent of a centralized mailing was to reduce the workload for local election officials. Knudson and Spindell also voted against the move.

The panel finally settled on the staff-recommended motion and timeline, which calls for the commission to approve the mailing’s content by June 10 with an eye on an early September distribution.

The commission also unanimously backed putting off a redesign of absentee ballot envelopes until next year.

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