Photo by Saiyna Bashir, The Capital Times

The Wisconsin Elections Commission voted unanimously to approve sending an absentee ballot application to some 2.7 million voters, pending a handful of changes to the language in the documents.

The commission yesterday also deadlocked along partisan lines on a request to explicitly ban ballot harvesting, setting the stage for a potential legal challenge of the commission’s interpretation of how absentee ballots can be returned.

The move to approve the absentee ballot application mailer comes after a group of Assembly Republicans drafted a letter to the commission voicing opposition to the mailer.

The letter, circulated by Slinger Republican Rick Gundrum, raises concern that the absentee ballot application mailer “would add significant expense and effort to each of Wisconsin’s 1,850 municipal clerks who are already stretched thin.”

Gundrum said in an email accompanying the letter that his concerns were born out of conversations with municipal clerks in his district who were wary the process would be “unnecessarily burdensome.”

But one of the driving forces behind the commission’s move to authorize the mailer was alleviating the workload on local clerks.

Dem Commissioner Mark Thomsen, chafing during a meeting last month at moves he considered to be “micromanaging” commission staff, proposed canceling the statewide absentee mailing and rolling the funding into a grant program so municipalities could send absentee applications 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. Republicans Dean Knudson and Bob Spindell also voted against the move last month.

Under the proposal approved by the commission last month, the mailer would be sent by the Department of Administration while completed absentee ballot applications would be returned to the commission’s Madison office. Data entry would be handled by temporary staff hired using federal coronavirus relief funds.

Clerks would still have “complete authority, as required by law, to review and accept or deny the applications,” the proposal says.

Dems on the commission voted against a petition from the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty for an administrative rule to explicitly ban third parties from requesting or returning an absentee ballot on behalf of a voter.

Dem appointees argued current law already made third-party requests for an absentee ballot illegal in most circumstances. Chair Ann Jacobs added state statute on third parties returning ballots was worded ambiguously and had been interpreted to allow such a practice for years. Such an interpretation, she said, was why a husband could return his wife’s ballot if they both voted absentee.

Dem Mark Thomsen said widespread ballot harvesting was “not an issue in Wisconsin.”

“This is simply (WILL President Rick) Esenberg and WILL yanking this commission’s chain again,” he said. “We should not be wasting administrative resources, taxpayer dollars on chasing a problem that doesn’t exist.”

Under state law, a completed absentee ballot must be “mailed by the elector, or delivered in person, to the municipal clerk issuing the ballot or ballots.” The commission in 2019 unanimously agreed to request the Legislature change state law to make “failing or refusing to deliver a marked ballot collected from another voter to the municipal clerk or polling place” a felony. That recommendation was included in an Assembly bill introduced by three Republicans earlier this session but the legislation died in committee.

Republicans countered Jacob’s interpretation of the law could lead to “massive” ballot harvesting efforts and vote fraud.

“If that’s what you think and we’re going to state that publicly right here, if you think there’s no ballot harvesting in Wisconsin, you buckle up because there most definitely will be,” Commissioner Dean Knudson warned. “Every third party is going to be out there trying to encourage these absentee ballots and then out there collecting them and making sure they get turned in.”

The commission ultimately settled on a statement saying it rejected the petition and affirming the panel’s belief that state law “prohibits any individual or group from requesting an absentee ballot for a voter.”

Esenberg said in a statement it was “unfortunate, but not surprising, the Democrat members on the Wisconsin Elections Commission refused to agree on this simple, but critical matter.”

He last week indicated in a radio interview that his group could pursue legal action if the commission declines the petition.

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