In February, some Wisconsin voters showed up to vote in the primary election only to discover the state Elections Commission had kicked them off the rolls.
Commission officials are trying to fix that for the upcoming April 3, August 14 and November 6 elections. While Dane County Clerk Scott McDonell likes the commission's short-term solution, he’s worried that voters could be greeted by the same problem in the future and that the commission's steps may not go far enough to figure out what went wrong.
“I’m just worried that it won’t uncover every potential issue,” he said.
Every year, some voters show up at the polls on election day confident that they have registered, only to be told they aren’t on the rolls. That may be followed by a scramble for documents or a defeated walk away from the polls.
If a voter previously lived in another state, they may assume that they registered to vote when they went to the Department of Motor Vehicles to get a new driver's license or state ID, said Maribeth Witzel-Behl, clerk of the city of Madison.
But in Wisconsin, residents can’t register to vote at the DMV.
In the February election, voters were thrown off for a different reason: last year, the state flagged 343,000 Wisconsinites, including 51,000 voters in Dane County, because their voting registration was in question. The Wisconsin Elections Commission was attempting to verify the voting status of residents by using the Electronic Registration Information Center to identify voters who moved out of Wisconsin, changed addresses or died.
The state then sent postcards to those 343,000 individuals explaining how to register to vote, but not everyone got the message. Some of those who showed up to vote in February were “correctly required to reregister,” the state Elections Commision said, because they hadn’t voted in four years or had moved.
But a “small number” hadn’t moved, and were mystified as to why their names were missing from the voting rolls. Commission officials said earlier this month they had identified 22 people who were mistakenly removed from the rolls.
“On election day in February, there were a lot of people who expected to be on the poll book and were not,” said Witzel-Behl.
At training sessions for election officials, she regularly asks how many officials saw voters show up to the February election to learn they had been deactivated by the state. And at “every single training,” she said, “a lot of election officials raise their hand.”
And since only 11.7 percent of voting-age residents turned out for the February election, it’s logical to assume many others won't learn of their situations until they show up next Tuesday or in August and November.
The state is taking steps to fix this. On Tuesday, if voters are not on the regular poll list and their address has not changed, they can sign a supplemental poll list confirming their address and receive a ballot.
“These new supplemental poll books are a safety net for voters,” said Meagan Wolfe, Wisconsin’s chief election official, in a statement. “Our goal is to ensure that all eligible voters who have not moved are able to vote without reregistering at the Spring Election on April 3 or in future elections.”
After April 3, the Elections Commission will release a report evaluating the supplemental poll list system and analyzing the February problems.
Even if their address has changed, Wisconsin voters can register and vote on election day at the polls.
But as McDonell said when he testified before the Elections Commission in early March, “a lot of folks don’t bring what they need (to register) to the polls that day, and will be upset.” Or even if they do have the necessary documents, registering can create longer lines, which some potential voters may not have time for.
During his testimony, McDonell said that while he thinks the supplemental poll list is a good idea and will help determine some areas where the system went wrong, he would like a more thorough investigation on the issue.
“I’ll just implore you all to assume the worst and not assume it’s been figured out,” he said.
He highlighted how voter registration problems could hinder Dane County, with its large population of college students, many of whom change addresses each year.
“For Dane County, it seems like it’s going to hit us harder, because it seems to be based on movement. I mean, obviously it’s based on movement. We have more movement than maybe a different county,” McDonell said.
He still feels that way, saying Tuesday that while a report after the Apr. 3 election will be helpful, he would prefer an audit, as well as “a list of issues found in other states that use ERIC that could be reviewed and checked against our own systems.”
“There will be a much larger group of voters for November and I am concerned that some issues could be missed,” he wrote in an email.
How voters can prepare for election day:
Next Tuesday, April 3, Madison residents can vote for offices including Dane County Supervisor, Dane County Circuit Court Judge, Court of Appeals Judge, Madison Metropolitan School Board and state Supreme Court Justice.
To make sure you’re registered, check online at myvote.wi.gov, Witzel-Behl said. Those without internet access are encouraged to call the city clerk’s office at 608-266-4601.
If it turns out a resident needs to register, Witzel-Behl said the clerk’s office is "more than happy" to walk residents through the documentation they need, “because it’s not exactly a logical process." As an example, renter’s insurance policies don’t qualify as proof of address.
“We don’t want the voters to be surprised," Witzel-Behl said.