Photo by Saiyna Bashir, The Capital Times

The Wisconsin Elections Commission deadlocked along party lines on a proposal that would have asked Gov. Tony Evers and the state Legislature to convene a special session to give the agency flexibility to run elections safely in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dem Mark Thomsen put the proposal forward as an amendment to a seven-pronged motion proposed by GOP Chair Dean Knudson during Wednesday’s emergency meeting addressing the coronavirus’ effect on the upcoming April 7 election.

Thomsen cited “fundamental problems in law that need to change” in order for the upcoming election to be run “safely yet meaningfully.” That includes extending the deadlines for online voter registration requesting an absentee ballot, as well as counting absentee ballots.

The ideas of extending the deadline to register via mail or online and extending the window to count absentee ballots were also part of a federal lawsuit Dems filed earlier in the day.

But Knudson countered that elections could be run safely under the current framework.

The former Republican lawmaker also highlighted concerns raised by staff that changes to dates could have wide-ranging “ripple effects” agency-wide.

Administrator Meagan Wolfe said among other things, extending deadlines would force the commission to make changes to the MyVote voter database. She said such a move would be “very risky” so close to an election.

The proposal failed after commissioners deadlock 3-3 along party lines.

Still, six of Knudson’s seven proposals passed unanimously.

The package commissioners signed off on included measures that would: direct staff to send to local clerks best practices to minimize transmission of coronavirus; authorize Wolfe to spend up to $200,000 for envelopes for absentee ballots, labels and other emergency supplies; and request the Evers administration help the commission acquire hand sanitizer for polling locations, among other things.

Wolfe said in the memo ahead of the meeting the commission’s push for voters to sign up for absentee ballots has produced an estimated shortage of roughly 600,000 absentee certificate envelopes for voters to use when returning their ballots.

Wolfe said some jurisdictions have dipped into their supply of envelopes earmarked for the fall elections. Other clerks have attempted to place emergency orders. But Wolfe warned: “There is a statewide shortage of the envelope material that is normally used.”

The last prong of Knudson’s motion sought to affirm the commission believed it was “vitally important” that the April 7 election goes on as scheduled to ensure continuity in local government.

That measure passed 4-2 with Thomsen and fellow Dem Ann Jacobs voting in opposition. The pair agreed that the election was “vitally important” but expressed concern elections officials wouldn’t be able to administer it safely.

“I believe we’re putting people at risk,” Jacobs said while arguing in favor of postponing the election.

See the memo here.

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