EAU CLAIRE — With Election Day still 18 days away, thousands of Chippewa Valley residents already have mailed or hand-delivered absentee ballots for the fall election.
While ballots will continue to flood local municipal clerks’ offices by those methods through election season, a new avenue will open to voters on Tuesday. That’s when in-person absentee voting begins in Wisconsin — a process expected to draw more than 10,000 residents to a drive-thru voting station at Eau Claire City Hall.
By the time Election Day finally arrives on Tuesday, Nov. 3, Chippewa Valley elections officials predict about half the voters participating in the presidential election already will have cast their ballots.
In the meantime, those ballots will remain sealed in envelopes and locked in secure storage until Election Day, when they will be transported to polling sites and processed along with ballots cast in person.
Nearly 1.4 million Wisconsinites, or about 38% of registered voters, have requested absentee ballots, and 785,536 of those have been returned, Wisconsin Elections Commission administrator Meagan Wolfe said Thursday in a teleconference.
Absentee voting has climbed steadily in recent elections, as candidates promote it to lock in their votes and more voters become aware of the convenience of voting on their own schedule and avoiding long lines on Election Day.
The COVID-19 pandemic has only accelerated the trend.
“Absentee voting is huge this year, and I do believe it’s because of COVID,” said Eau Claire County Clerk Janet Loomis.
That’s not surprising for a pandemic that as of Thursday had resulted in 1,553 deaths and 162,325 people testing positive for COVID-19 in Wisconsin, according to the state Department of Health Services.
“I think people just want to make sure they are staying safe in the current health environment,” said Eau Claire City Clerk Carrie Riepl.
Despite public health officials cautioning people against indoor gatherings, especially with COVID-19 cases surging in Wisconsin in recent weeks, local clerks said they have had an adequate number of people step up to be poll workers. That’s a big change from the April election, when many clerks reported shortages of poll workers and had to rely on Wisconsin National Guard members to fill the gap.
“It was harder to get poll workers in April because the whole thing was just happening,” Loomis said. “I think people are a little more comfortable now about 6-foot distancing, wearing masks and other precautions. I think people saw that polling places did a really good job in April and that there weren’t breakouts after the election.”
Overall, Wisconsin needs more than 30,000 poll workers on Election Day, and 51 jurisdictions, including a few in west-central Wisconsin, still are reporting they are short by a total of about 180 poll workers, Wolfe said, noting that more than 77,000 people have registered to vote statewide in the past two weeks.
Considering the jump in absentee voting and additional safety precautions, Chippewa Falls City Clerk Bridget Givens summed up the 2020 election this way: “This one’s been a doozy.”
Drive-thru in-person absentee voting behind Eau Claire City Hall will be expanded from the level used in April to accommodate the higher number of voters expected in the presidential election.
City staff will set up three additional tents on Dewey Street, which will be blocked off and converted to one-way traffic during drive-thru voting, Riepl said.
The station will be open for 10 days between Tuesday and Friday, Oct. 30. Hours will be from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and Monday, Oct. 26, through Thursday, Oct. 29; from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Fridays; and from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 24.
Voters using the service will pull their vehicle up to a tent and present their photo ID. Workers will then bring the voters a ballot and envelope in which to seal it, with staff serving as the mandatory witness for absentee voting. Completed ballots will be securely stored until Election Day.
“I’m expecting a lot of people to go through the drive-thru because they personally want to hand the ballot back to us,” Riepl said. “Everybody wants to make sure their ballot is counted.”
Residents also will be able to complete their registration during drive-thru voting, said Riepl, who reminded voters needing to register that they will need a photo ID and proof of residence to complete the process.
Drive-thru absentee voting will only add to the volume of Eau Claire residents who already have submitted their absentee ballots by mail or in one of the four official drop boxes, located on the south side of City Hall and at the Festival Foods stores at 2615 N. Clairemont Ave., 2717 Birch St. and 3007 Mall Drive. So far, the method of delivery of returned absentee ballots has been divided about evenly between the drop boxes and the mail, she said.
The city had received 14,046 absentee ballot requests as Thursday morning. That’s more than nine times as many mail absentee ballots as the city processed in the 2016 election.
A total of 8,735 absentee ballots already have been returned, which is nearing the 9,103 absentee ballots that were cast by mail and in person four years ago, Riepl said.
In-person absentee voting in Chippewa Falls will be offered during normal business hours on weekdays from Tuesday through Oct. 30. The process will be conducted in the auditorium at City Hall to allow for adequate social distancing, City Clerk Bridget Givens said.
As in other jurisdictions that don’t offer drive-thru service, in-person absentee voting in Chippewa Falls will use Plexiglass barriers, hand sanitizer, individual pens, floor markings 6 feet apart and regular cleaning of hard surfaces to make it as safe as possible for voters and poll workers. Those working the polls also will be asked to wear face coverings.
“I definitely feel better about it than in April when we were in pretty uncharted waters,” Givens said. “Social distancing has become part of our vocabulary now, and I think people are naturally doing some of those things.”
As of Wednesday, Chippewa Falls elections officials had mailed about 2,800 absentee ballots to voters.
Givens reminded absentee voters to follow all of the directions that accompany their ballot and to make sure both the voter and a witness sign the envelope and that an address is included for the witness. Like other local clerks, Givens said her office is attempting to follow up with voters to fix any mistakes on the envelopes that might disqualify their ballot.
“We check and recheck all of those absentee ballots to make sure they’re filled out properly,” she said. “We try to set our voters up for success because we definitely want every voter’s ballot to count.”
Voters who want to cast in-person absentee ballots in Menomonie will have to go to the city clerk’s office at City Hall, where they can vote from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekdays from Tuesday through Oct. 30.
As of Wednesday, Menomonie elections officials had received 2,650 absentee ballot requests, and nearly 1,600 of them had been returned. The requests already exceed the total absentee ballots cast in the last last presidential election by more than 1,000.
Voters also can deposit ballots in a drop box outside of City Hall that is available 24/7 and emptied daily.
“I’m really happy with how many voters have gotten their absentee ballots back already,” City Clerk Cally Lauersdorf said. “In theory, that should alleviate the rush on Election Day.”
Despite the high rate of absentee ballot requests, Lauersdorf expects strong turnout for in-person absentee voting as well.
“I’ve had a lot of people call and ask when it starts, so I think it will still be busy,” she said.
Lauersdorf attributed the popularity of absentee voting to people not wanting to stand in line for a long time and to fears about potential exposure to the coronavirus at the polls.
“I think a lot of people would love to go to the polls and vote on Election Day, but they don’t want to risk it this year,” she said.
In-person absentee voting will be conducted from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays from Tuesday through Oct. 30 in the community room of Altoona City Hall.
On Election Day, however, voting will once again move to River Prairie Center to accommodate more people, although City Clerk Cindy Bauer said some still may have to line up outside to limit the number of voters gathered in one indoor space.
The city had mailed out about 1,920 absentee ballots and had more than 1,200 returned as of Tuesday, Bauer said.
Though the city had some regular poll workers opt out because of COVID-19, others stepped in to fill the need, leading Bauer to remark: “I believe we’re in very good shape.”
For those voters who choose to wait until Election Day to cast their vote, Wolfe said she believes they will be impressed with the job clerks and poll workers do to maintain a safe environment.
“Every single aspect of voting has been reconceptionalized to protect poll workers and voters,” Wolfe said. “I think voters will find a very safe, welcoming experience at their polls on Election Day.”