Gov. Evers Wants Absentee Ballots Sent Statewide. Local Clerk: 'It Is Not Doable.'

Mar 31, 2020

Oneida County Clerk Tracy Hartman.
Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR

It’s already been a hectic leadup to next Tuesday’s election for Oneida County Clerk Tracy Hartman.

In April 2016, the last election with a Supreme Court race and presidential primary, 1,400 voters in Oneida County requested absentee ballots.

This year’s number is about three times that.

“It’s a challenge,” Hartman said Monday.  “It has become overwhelming.”

Then, last Friday, a message from Madison overwhelmed Hartman even more.

Gov. Tony Evers called for the Legislature to quickly change state law and send an absentee ballot to every registered voter in the state.  That’s 3.3 million people.

“The bottom line is that everybody should be able to participate in our democracy.  Period,” Evers said.  

Ryan Nilsestuen, Evers’ chief legal counsel, called the plan “simple” and “common sense.”

But if the plan went into effect, the responsibility of getting those ballots out to voters would fall on county and municipal clerks like Hartman

For her, the plan is neither simple nor common sense.

“It is not doable,” Hartman said.  “It is not doable.”

Like many other clerks in Wisconsin, Hartman was caught off guard when she heard Evers’ plan.

“It caught me by surprise and I will admit it sent me into a little bit of a panic on Friday afternoon,” she said.

The envelope needed to return absentee ballots.
Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR

Hartman panicked because, she said, first of all, there’s simply not enough time to do it.

To prepare each absentee ballot, a clerk needs to neatly fold the ballot, enclose voting instructions, and put it in a packet with an addressed and stamped return envelope.  That takes awhile.

“All of that gets compiled by the clerks and put in the envelope to mail to you,” Hartman said.

She said there’s no way part-time municipal clerks could get ballots to the 24,000 registered voters in Oneida County in just a few days.

Even if they could, there are nowhere close to enough ballots and envelopes to go around.

Tracy Hartman looks over a shipment of 7,000 new absentee ballot envelopes. It will be nowhere near enough if she needs to send a ballot to every registered voter in the county.
Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR

Boxes and boxes of absentee envelopes are stacked in the Oneida County Clerk’s office.

Hartman hopes they will be enough to cover incoming absentee requests.

They’re far short of the number needed to cover all registered voters in the county.

In a media briefing Friday, WXPR asked Evers how it was possible to get ballots to everyone in the state while counties don’t have enough ballots or envelopes on hand.

“It ain’t going to be easy.  But we’re going to do it,” Evers replied.  “Is it going to be difficult?  Absolutely.  But we will be able to get through this and we’ll get the ballots and envelopes to local officials as quickly as we can.”

Evers said he won’t use an emergency order to require everyone be sent an absentee ballot, instead relying on the Legislature to approve the plan.

But Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald called Evers’ plan “ridiculous” and a “complete fantasy.”

Speaker Robin Vos said the announcement was “careless and reckless.”

Minocqua Sen. Tom Tiffany doesn’t expect the plan to go anywhere in the Republican-held legislature.

“What Gov. Evers is asking for is not possible to be done,” Tiffany said.  “You can’t possibly print hundreds of thousands of ballots and get them mailed out within the next week.”

Evers, Republicans, and Tracy Hartman, the Oneida County Clerk, do at least agree that next Tuesday’s election shouldn’t be postponed, as several state mayors have urged.

The Oneida County Courthouse.
Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR

“It’s important that we have this election happen just like it has in our democracy for over the last 200 years,” Tiffany said.

A Supreme Court seat needs to be filled, as do seats on county boards and town boards.

Unless something changes, in-person polling places will remain open next Tuesday.

They’ll be stocked with extra hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies.

“If you didn’t get an absentee ballot and you still want the opportunity to vote, it will be there, and it will be as safe as we can possibly make it,” Hartman said.  “I think, at this point in time, that’s the only option that’s left to us.”

It could mean lower turnout than usual.  That’s a price Hartman is willing to pay.

“We kind of have to live with it,” she said.

What she can’t live with is the governor’s plan to mail ballots to the entire state, just a week before the election.

“We don’t have enough ballots.  We already are short on envelopes,” Hartman said.

“We don’t have enough time.”