New law moves up absentee ballot deadline to election day

A new law requires absentee ballots be received by Election Day. Previously they could be postmarked by Election Day.

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Voters who mail in their absentee ballots have an earlier deadline to do so this year under a new state law that took effect last month.

Under the law the absentee ballots must be received by 8 p.m. on Election Day, Nov. 8, in order to count. Previously, mail-in absentee ballots had to be postmarked by Election Day and received by a clerk’s office by 4 p.m. on the next Friday.

The new law is one of a handful of changes to voting rules that could trip up some of the half-million to a million people in the state who only turn out to vote once every four years for presidential elections.

The most substantial change for them will be the new voter ID requirement, which critics fear will cause long lines on Election Day and result in some eligible voters being turned away at the polls. Supporters say the requirement will prevent voter fraud, though incidents of illegal voter impersonation are exceptionally rare.

The new deadline for absentee ballots could catch the most stalwart voters by surprise because it wasn’t in effect during the August primary. The law was enacted in March, but it wasn’t set to take effect until September.

Elections officials are advising people to mail their ballots at least six days ahead of time, said Andrea Kaminski, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin.

Reid Magney, spokesman for the state Elections Commission, urged mail-in absentee voters to send in their ballots as soon as possible, and definitely no later than Nov. 1.

“The post office can take up to one week to deliver mail now, and their vote is too valuable to risk to a late mailing because it has to be at the clerk’s office on Election Day,” Magney said.

Anyone can request an absentee ballot by email or fax after a federal judge struck down a law limiting such requests to overseas and military voters. Clerks must respond to a request within one business day, which is a change from previous law that required a response within one day — forcing clerks to work on weekends.

A new law requires a witness to sign and include an address on absentee ballots. The Elections Commission on Tuesday advised clerks to complete the address if it can be determined or otherwise do whatever is necessary to ensure the ballot counts, said Chris Astrella, president of the Wisconsin Municipal Clerks Association.

The photo ID requirement, though adopted prior to the 2012 election, had been set aside until last year, when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review an appellate court’s decision to allow the law. The law was in place for the February primary, April election and August primary.

Voters must present a valid photo ID at the polls. Examples include a valid driver’s license, an identification card issued by the Department of Transportation, a passport, a military ID, a tribal ID, an unexpired veterans ID, a certification of naturalization issued within two years of the election or a qualifying student ID. The ID doesn’t have to include a current address, and expired student IDs are also acceptable, under a recent court ruling.

Those without a photo ID can apply for a free voting ID at a Division of Motor Vehicles location. For those lacking certain documentation, such as a birth certificate, the DMV must issue a receipt within six days that can also be used for voting while a request for ID is being processed.

Other election law changes since 2012 include bringing closer the buffer zones where election observers are allowed to stand in polling places. Observers must be allowed as close as 3 feet and no farther than 8 feet from where voters sign in and in some cases register to vote.

Previously observers could be kept a few feet farther away from those tables.

The buffer zone law was adopted in 2014. Recently, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has claimed the election could be rigged, raising the potential that his supporters will be more actively involved in observing polling locations.

Cindy Cepress, president of the Wisconsin County Clerks Association, said the processes used to protect the integrity of the Nov. 8 election are the same as those used in previous elections.

“The same processes, the same guidance, the same procedures are used in every election to ensure the integrity,” Cepress said. “To question the integrity of this election versus a February primary is ludicrous.”

Also new this year, write-in candidates will only be counted if they are pre-registered with the state Elections Board.

Evan McMullin, a third-party candidate polling neck-and-neck with Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton in Utah, will not be on the Wisconsin ballot, but he is one of four candidates registered as a valid write-in.

Early voting options are also expanded this year after a federal judge struck down the state’s limitations on when and where clerks can conduct in-person absentee voting. Hours and availability vary by municipality.

As of Thursday, 202,720 absentee ballots had been cast, according to the Elections Commission. An additional 67,118 ballots had been requested but not returned. Of those returned, almost 31,000 are from Dane County.

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Matthew DeFour covers state government and politics for the Wisconsin State Journal.