Kitchens Proposes Emergency Elections Procedure

State Reps. Joel Kitchens (R-Sturgeon Bay) and Staush Gruszynski (D-Green Bay) introduced a bill on May 18 to address the state’s preparedness to hold an election during a public-health emergency. 

The proposal is a response to the confusion leading up to the April 7 spring election, when in-person voting was held during the first weeks of the COVID-19 emergency and despite the state being under Gov. Tony Evers’ Safer at Home order. Evers had sought to delay the election, but Republican legislative leaders appealed the order to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which overturned it.

“Proceeding with the April election during the COVID-19 pandemic came with its fair share of challenges, and there was plenty of blame to go around,” Kitchens said. 

During April’s election, a shortage of polling places, combined with social-distancing precautions, led to long lines and long wait times for voters, particularly in Green Bay and Milwaukee. 

The bill encourages voters to vote by mail, but it also requires that polling places remain open so that Wisconsin’s same-day voter-registration law is preserved. 

Under the proposal, the Elections Commission must send an absentee-ballot application to every registered voter who does not have one on file. Each municipality would be required to have a polling place open and to have at least one polling place for every 12,000 citizens of legal voting age who reside in that municipality.

In order to be counted, an absentee ballot must be delivered to a polling place or municipal clerk no later than 8 pm on Election Day. If the Elections Commission decides to extend the deadline for requesting an absentee ballot, the ballot must be returned to a municipal clerk no later than 4 pm on the Friday following the election. The bill also allows for the Elections Commission to waive the witness-signature requirement.

To help better guarantee that absentee ballots are not lost in the mail, the bill tasks the Elections Commission with developing and implementing software to track them from the day they’re issued to the day they’re returned.

Kitchens said the bill was drafted in consultation with the Wisconsin Elections Commission and is co-authored by Sen. Kathy Bernier (R-Chippewa Falls). The bill does not include an estimated price tag.

Kitchens said he’s not sure whether the Assembly will go into session again before the November election to consider the bill, but that the Elections Commission could implement some parts of the proposal without legislative action.