Sun Prairie City Clerk Diane Hermann-Brown knew she was going to need extra help before last year’s presidential election. Besides working extra hours herself, Hermann-Brown hired a high-school student just to sort and alphabetize absentee ballots.

The extra hours and hired help fell short when roughly 1,300 residents walked into her office to vote absentee the Monday before Election Day.

“We were very organized, but we were still struggling,” says Hermann-Brown, who also serves as first vice president of the Wisconsin Municipal Clerks Association and the Wisconsin Election Administration Council. “What if something would have crashed? We would have been up a creek without a paddle.”

Clerks in mid- to large-sized cities across the state had similar stories. Urged by political operatives to get out and vote early, a record number of people mailed in absentee ballots and voted absentee at municipal clerk offices, creating long lines and hectic ballot tallying by clerks. This prompted voters, clerks, elected officials, and the media to question if Wisconsin’s absentee-voting policy was suited to handling the strain of a large election and whether true early voting might prove more effective. Unlike absentee voting, early voting would allow residents to cast their votes in an electronic voting machine at the clerk’s office and have their votes counted prior to Election Day.

“These days, people’s lives are on a professional treadmill,” says Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. “The tradition of only voting on Election Day is rooted in an agrarian society, and we don’t live in that society anymore.”

Not surprisingly, support for early voting generally splits along party lines, with Democrats backing easier access and Republicans viewing more access as proving more opportunities for fraud. McCabe sides with those who believe early voting is a way to make voting more convenient for the public. He’d also like to see Election Day be designated a holiday, as it is in several European countries, and for weekend voting to be a possibility.

The increase in absentee voting and questions about early voting prompted the Government Accountability Board to study the issue this year. After interviewing hundreds of county and municipal clerks in Wisconsin it issued a report, “Early Voting in Wisconsin,” earlier this month. The Board this month also voted on the recommendations, rejecting a proposal to provide early voting as an option to state voters. In justifying its decision, the board cited a lack of interest among the clerks interviewed and the $30 to $40 million cost to upgrade voting software.

“Not tallying ballots until Election Day is a very strong Wisconsin tradition,” says Hermann-Brown, who has held her position as Sun Prairie city clerk for 25 years. “For the state to come up with a plan that 100 percent (of clerks) will go for is going to be very difficult.”

The idea to move ahead with early voting, however, didn’t even come close to gaining a 100 percent approval rating from clerks.

Of the roughly 330 clerks who responded to a GAB survey on early voting that was published in the report, only 24, or 7.2 percent, said there would be a high demand for early voting. In comparison, 145, or 43.5 percent, said there would be little interest in their communities for early voting and 76, or roughly 23 percent, said there would be no demand for early voting in their communities.

Linda Cory, the city clerk for Fitchburg, is one of the few clerks who favor a move toward early voting. “I think people like instant things,” Cory says. “I don’t want to create more work for people, but I also don’t want to discourage people from voting.”

Fitchburg, along with Brookfield, Rice Lake, Sun Prairie and Wauwatosa, are the only cities in the state that have the electronic absentee voting machines needed to process early-voting ballots. The lack of technology largely shapes most attitudes by her fellow clerks on the issue, she says.

“I think a lot of them don’t have the technology and the budgets we have,” Cory says. “I think it will help if the GAB works on providing the technology.”

Last year, about 634,000 people statewide voted absentee in the November election, a jump from the roughly 365,000 who voted absentee in 2004 and up from the roughly 160,000 who voted absentee in the presidential election of 2000.

The Government Accountability Board estimates between 225,000 and 476,000 of those who voted absentee in the 2008 presidential election cast their ballots in person, not by mailing them in. The wide estimate is due to the fact that not all municipalities are connected to the statewide voting system and some count their absentee ballots manually.

While the state did not track in-person absentee votes until 2006, the estimated numbers that voted absentee in November is close to, if not more than, the total number of residents who voted absentee just four years ago; at the very least, this suggests in-person absentee voting is likely on the rise.

Some speculate that the increase dates to 2000 when state law was changed to allow anyone, without an excuse, to vote absentee by either mailing in a ballot or voting in person at a clerk’s office. Many voters, as indicated by the numbers, like the convenience. But there is a downside. Unlike votes cast on Election Day at the polls, absentee ballots are not counted immediately; this prevents a voter from knowing if their ballot is flawed in some way so that they can fix it and make sure their vote is not disqualified.

To gauge how effectively early voting could be used to accommodate this growing group of voters who opt to head to the polls prior to Election Day, the Government Accountability Board is pushing forward with an early-voting pilot program. Because of their existing technology and on-hand staff to handle the crowds, the cities of Brookfield, Fitchburg, Rice Lake, Sun Prairie and Wauwatosa are prospects for the pilot program, which would get its first test run in November 2010, when the governor’s race is on the ballot.

The pilot program, as well as the GAB’s recommendations on early voting and other changes to absentee voting guidelines, would all have to be approved by state lawmakers.

“The pilot program could be the springboard to true early voting in Wisconsin,” says Nathaniel Robinson, administrator for the agency’s Elections Division. “But we’ll have to see what the Legislature thinks.” Implementing early voting statewide, he adds, could still be five or 10 years down the road.

Charlotte Rasmussen, president of the Wisconsin Federation of Republican Women, says the early voting pilot program is a bad idea. “Why change things for an important election?” Rasmussen asks. “It would be too much of an experiment.”

But Maggie Brick, executive director of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, says her party is strongly in favor of maximizing voter participation in elections, and absentee and early voting are “important tools toward that end.”

“We’re hopeful that efforts to increase the participation of voters while protecting the integrity of our elections will continue,” Brick says. “Early voting is one tool that has worked in other states, and it’s one that will be further examined by GAB and by the Legislature as an option for Wisconsin.”

While the push for the Government Accountability Board to study early voting came from individuals wanting to make voting more convenient, the agency, in its recent vote on early voting, also approved further restrictions on absentee voting.

Specifically, the Board recommended that the state reduce the number of days during which people can vote absentee at a municipal clerk’s office. Voters would have 20 days before an election to vote, rather than 30. The change is meant to ease the burden on clerks and eliminate the 10-day window that allows people to register and vote in-person absentee without providing proof of residency. Voters, however, can still vote absentee by mailing in their ballots 30 days before an election.

“This is not disenfranchising anyone,” Sun Prairie’s Hermann-Brown says. “Those last minute voters will just need to be a little more organized.”

In addition, the Board recommended changes to the decades-old practice of allowing residents to cast their absentee ballots until 5 p.m. on the Monday before Election Day. Going against its staff recommendations, the Board voted to move the deadline back to 5 p.m. Friday. Only those who sign an affidavit stating they cannot vote on Election Day would be able to vote absentee on the Monday before an election. Wisconsin voters have been able to vote no-excuse absentee up until Election Day since 2000.

“We respect what the clerks have told us,” Robinson says. “But we believe we have to put the focus on the voters. The board didn’t feel the same way.”

Andrea Kaminski, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, initially criticized the move, calling it a “major step backwards” at a public hearing before the GAB earlier this month. But in a recent interview she says moving up the cutoff day for absentee voting does have its advantages for voters.

“We will always advocate for making voting as accessible and non-restrictive as possible,” Kaminski says. “But part of my rights as a voter is knowing the election has been efficiently administered and my vote will be counted and not lost.”

Indeed, municipal clerks say they could use the extra time to accurately complete absentee-voting logs prior to the start of Election Day. Without such logs, there is the potential for people to vote twice, as some absentee ballots may not yet have been recorded on the absentee logs.

Hermann-Brown says the extra days also will allow clerks to get back the results of background checks performed on new registered voters from the state Department of Transportation and the state Department of Corrections, among other agencies. Hermann-Brown says it typically takes one to three days for the results to come back to a clerk’s office.

“A felon could have walked in and it would have been days before we would have known they were not eligible,” she says. “If you want transparency in the process, this gives more transparency.”

Rep. Jeff Smith, chair of the Assembly Elections and Campaign Reform Committee, says he plans to hold a public hearing on the new GAB recommendations as soon as his committee is brought up to date on the details. He says a date should be set by mid-January. With the exception of the pilot program, none of the recommendations would take effect until February of 2011.

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