Absentee voting

City of Watertown employee Rob Roe, left, prepares absentee ballots to send out in the mail while a city resident who came in to vote early turns in his completed ballot at City Hall on Monday. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a huge increase in voters requesting absentee ballots in order to follow safety guidelines put in place to fight the spread of the coronavirus. A makeshift barrier is in place on Roe’s desk to help protect him from passers-by.

Toilet paper isn’t the only item there’s been a run on in the coronavirus era.

Requests for absentee ballots are up across Wisconsin in advance of the election set for Tuesday, April 7, and Jefferson and Dodge Counties are no exception.

Since Gov. Tony Evers issued “safer at home” restrictions one week ago in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19, local city and village clerks have seen a huge uptick in applications for absentee ballots. Voters still have the option to fill out their ballots at their local polling place on Election Day, but that could change as the number of positive tests across the state continues to grow.

Thus, early voting and voting by mail, both of which are done on absentee ballots, are being touted as ways to follow social distancing guidelines as well as avoiding gatherings of people over 10.

“Extremely heavy,” Watertown City Clerk Elissa Meltesen said of the higher volume. “We’ve had over 3,200 absentee ballots issued, which is extremely rare. It’s been very difficult for our office to keep up.”

Dodge County Clerk Karen Gibson is responsible for providing envelopes to city and village clerks to send out to voters, and the requests are piling up.

“I can tell you I’ve given out tons and tons of envelopes (due to all the) requests,” Gibson said. “All the clerks are saying they’ve never dealt with this many absentees in any election. They’re saying, ‘I need more envelopes, I need more envelopes. Can I come over and get some more?’”

Jefferson County Clerk Audrey McGraw fully expects the majority of area voters to go the absentee ballot route.

“From just speaking with some of the clerks I have talked to, we’ll have almost as many absentee requests as number of voters on Election Day, so the word is definitely getting out to vote absentee,” McGraw said. “The way that it’s looking, I don’t expect the polling places to be that busy on the actual voting day.”

The deadline for voters to request an absentee ballot to their local clerk by mail is the end of the business day on Thursday.

Voters can obtain an absentee ballot by mailing a written request to their clerk along with a copy of a valid photo ID, such as a driver’s license, a state ID or a passport, or by going online at myvote.wi.gov.

“The elections website has a more detailed list (of what forms of identification are valid), but those (three forms of ID) are the most common,” Watertown Deputy Clerk Lisa Prebatoski said. “It’s important for voters to know that they cannot just send a selfie or other picture of themselves. Some people have done that, and unfortunately, they aren’t including phone numbers or email addresses, so we have to (respond) by mail or by trying to contact them by phone number.”

Gibson thinks clerks in Dodge County are handling the volume of requests, but it’s difficult.

“As far I know, they are getting them out,” Gibson said. “A lot of times, the town clerks work part time. The part time job has turned into a full time job that they don’t get paid for. Clerks have to have (requests) in their hands by the end of the day on Thursday. For some of these clerks, that day can’t come quick enough. The ‘my vote’ website is being used very heavily, which is what it’s there for.”

Just as voters are trying to be responsible and do their civic duty by voting, clerks are working overtime to make sure they can do so in the safest manner possible.

“I haven’t heard anyone complain about the volume,” McGraw said. “I know it’s definitely overwhelming to them, but they would much rather have it this way, and have everyone safe, then have people getting sick. A lot of our poll workers are not even willing to take the risk of working on Election Day. It’s sad, but I certainly understand.”

Early voting in person runs through the end of the business day on Friday.

Voters in Watertown traditionally vote on the basement floor at City Hall on election day. Early voting for this election is being done on the second floor. Voters are directed to stay 6 feet apart and speak with a voting official one at a time. Once they receive their ballots, voters are given a sanitized pen and are directed to a booth. Upon completion of the ballot, voters are instructed to drop the pen in a nearby basket for cleaning and return the ballot to the official.

Turnout for early voting has been sporadic.

“It’s been both,” Prebatoski said. “There are times where it’s occasional, and times where we had to hold people back because we had more than 10. It depends on the day and time.”

The deadline for clerks to receive an absentee ballot is on Election Day.

“I expect the results on election night will not come in as quickly,” Gibson said. “It takes a long time to process these ballots on election day. I suspect with large cities, it’s going to take a long time. It will be a while before we have results.”

Voters on April 7 will cast ballots in the presidential preference primary. There is also a general election for state Supreme Court, a constitutional amendment about Marsy’s Law, state appeals court, and sundry municipal and school races, and school referendums.

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