Jim’s Blog: You and Your Absentee Ballot
Written by Jim Bartlett on September 24, 2020
Absentee ballots are going out from city and municipal clerks around the state this week. Lots of people are voting absentee for the first time in 2020. I have regularly voted absentee for years, so here’s some information you might find helpful.
You’ll get a copy of the same ballot you get at the polling place, along with an envelope to return it in. Mark your choices as you normally would, then put it into the envelope that’s provided for return. Easy enough so far.
Your return envelope requires two signatures on the outside: yours and that of a witness. The purpose of the witness is to confirm that somebody saw you vote, fold, and seal your ballot. (Not who you voted for—just the fact that you voted.) You can sign for your spouse or children and one of them can sign for you, if that’s easiest. A witness does not have to be a registered voter—the only requirement is that he or she be age 21 or over and a U.S. citizen. So that means your witness can be a roommate, a neighbor, your mail carrier, your doctor, anybody.
Madison’s city clerk has a list of dos and don’ts for absentee ballots to make sure yours isn’t rejected. They apply in every jurisdiction. It’s worth taking a look before you fill out your ballot and the envelope it goes in.
The witness requirement remains in place despite COVID-19. If you’re concerned about coming into contact with other people, the Wisconsin Elections Commission has some suggestions. Hand your ballot out the window to your witness, then have them sign it and hand it back to you. Wear gloves if you want. You can also use Skype or Facetime to minimize contact.
In the city of Madison, you can have your ballot witnessed and then drop it off outside the City/County Building on weekdays from 8 to 4:30 and at several other locations around the city through Election Day. The City of Madison will hold Democracy in the Park on Saturday, September 26, and again on Saturday, October 3, from 9AM til 3PM each day. On that day, trained election volunteers will be on hand in over 200 city parks to register voters, collect ballots, and witness absentee ballots if needed. The event will be socially distanced and safe as it is possible to be. (Rain dates for Democracy in the Park are Sunday, September 27, and Sunday, October 4.) You can also return your ballot to your local polling place during early voting, which begins on October 20.
You can put your absentee ballot in the U.S. Mail, and in most places the return envelope will come already stamped. If you are concerned about whether your ballot will get there via the Postal Service, check to see if your community has drop boxes. You can also hand-deliver your ballot to your city or municipal clerk’s office, or drop it at your polling place on Election Day.
You can track the status of your ballot—whether it’s been sent to you or received by your clerk—at myvote.wi.gov. After you submit an absentee ballot, you do not have to—and you should not—show up at the polling place on Election Day to verify your vote. That’s what myvote.wi.gov is for.
What if you got an absentee ballot but you decide to vote in person instead? The best thing to do is to bring your unmarked absentee ballot to your polling place when you vote and turn it in. You can do this during your community’s early voting hours, or on Election Day itself.
If you’re worried about the health implications of voting in person on Election Day, you should know that each community will take precautions with masks, hand sanitizer, and sanitizing of polling places. When you’re in line, keep socially distant and wear a mask. We’ve already had some run-throughs on this: during the June general election and August primary, there was no clear evidence that in-person voting led to a spike in COVID cases. Like anything else these days, there’s a risk in being around other people, however. You’ll have to weigh that risk against your desire to vote in your preferred fashion.
One last thing: I was curious about precisely when absentee ballots are counted. It can vary by jurisdiction, but where I live, in Middleton, the counting of absentee ballots begins when the polls open on Election Day. Ballots are delivered to the polling place where you’d vote if you were doing so in person, and they’re counted there.
Your city clerk, or your municipal clerk if you live in a rural area, is already hard at work managing the election, but if you have a question or need help, they’ll be happy to provide it. If you have never visited your clerk’s website, this is a good time to do it. You can also call with questions.