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Wisconsin Cities Look At Expanding Ways To Vote

Some Larger Cities Add Additional Drop Boxes For Ballots. But Smaller Cities Cite Cost, Low Utilization

a man in a face mask holds a ballot
Brandon Combs of Oconomowoc glances at his ballot after filling it out Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020. Angela Major/WPR

For a ballot to be counted, it has to get where it’s going.

And after ballots in Wisconsin’s April primary election never made it to voters or went uncounted because they weren’t filled out properly, voters have varying levels of confidence in their options — voters uneasy about showing up at the polls during a pandemic especially.

So Wisconsin municipalities looking to give voters more ways to cast a ballot in November are considering adding additional drop boxes.

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The cities of Madison and Milwaukee recently announced plans for more drop boxes.

“I know there’s been a lot of concern about absentee ballots arriving for the November election in time to be counted,” said Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway during a recent online briefing where she announced the city planned to have 14 drop boxes. Plans are still being finalized on location, she said.

Wausau recently installed a drop box and Milwaukee is paying for 15 drop boxes using a grant it received from the nonprofit Center for Tech and Civic Life. It was one of six cities, including Madison, which shared in $6 million to help administer the fall election safely, including purchasing personal protective equipment.

But election officials in smaller cities say drop boxes aren’t widely utilized and cite staff shortages needed to secure drop off sites that are outside city hall and also to collect ballots. Additionally, they have to have access to a location.

“At city hall, we control the building, we control the property. If I say, ‘We want to drill a hole here and put in a box,” we can do that. I can’t just do that anyplace in the city without the property owner’s okay,” said Janesville city clerk David Godek.

Clerks across the state are bracing for even more absentee ballots in November. In Janesville, like many other communities, the election script has been flipped: Historically, the majority of votes are cast at the polls on Election Day. Now, they’re being dropped off or mailed.

“What I try to tell the residents in Janesville is that I have a lot of confidence in our local post office,” said Godek. “On election day in August, they contacted me and let me know they had a couple of late delivery routes, and we could pick up ballots if we arrived by 7:30. I don’t know if that happens throughout the state or country.”

Voters who request an absentee ballot can track its progress on the Wisconsin elections website MyVote. Clerks are required to mail them out by Sept. 17.

There’s no requirement to have drop boxes available for an election, but Oconomowoc City Clerk Diane Coenen, who is president of the Wisconsin Municipal Clerks Association, says clerks are reaching out to each other to ask where they can be purchased and where to put them.

But that doesn’t mean all municipalities will purchase drop boxes.

“It’s a matter of, ‘Do we fix the pothole or do we buy a dropbox?’” said Coenen.

Oconomowoc used up its entire election budget in April, she said. Many other cities also saw expenses go up with increased postage costs from a surge in voting by mail.

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