Wisconsin Implementing Solutions to Benefit Military and Overseas Voters
While election processes are administered in the counties of most states, Wisconsin municipalities handle elections. Instead of 50-150 voter jurisdictions, Wisconsin voters must figure out which of the 1,852 municipalities to register and cast their votes. Wisconsin has recently launched initiatives to assist all voters, but particularly those voting absentee as military and overseas voters.
The Council of State Governments’ Overseas Voting Initiative Policy Working Group released recommendations for improving the overseas voting process, and several of the recommendations were implemented in Wisconsin: use of election websites, communicating to voters when ballot application is accepted, incorporating online registration and documents for military and overseas voters, and establishing partnerships between state and local election officials.
In 2011, Wisconsin launched their first voter website, which included a blank ballot transmission service for Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA) voters. Because the voting process for military and overseas citizens can be lengthy and involve rigorous deadlines and guidelines, the Wisconsin Election Commission set out to make their site as user-friendly as possible.
With the help of the U.S. Department of Defense’s Federal Voting Assistance Program EASE research grant program in 2012 the Wisconsin Elections Commission conducted a usability study to assist them in selecting the best suited website for voters to understand and access.
“The relaunch of the Wisconsin Election Website in June 2016,” said Meagan Wolfe, Deputy Administrator at the Wisconsin Elections Commission, “went extremely well as we experienced fewer calls with questions than ever before.” Wolfe also expressed pride that 99% of the ballots in all four of the federal elections in 2016, were sent before the deadline to military and overseas voters allowing for this important universe of voters to get to vote in all of the elections. Wolfe credited the togetherness of the entire voting system in Wisconsin, from the state level, the website, and all 1,852 municipalities with ensuring ballots were sent off before the deadlines.
Wolfe said while the Wisconsin Elections Commission is pleased with their usable website and the communication between clerks and voters, they are always looking to improve. The Commission hopes to see an automated communication process launched to cut out some of the manual emails and phone calls that are relayed now. The automated deadlines could immediately update voters and clerks of upcoming deadlines and document information. Overall, the Commission intends to spend the next year continuing to build on the foundation that they have already establish
In addition to improving the website, the Wisconsin Elections Commission also developed new election administration training to better prepare their municipal clerks. The Commission found that over 80% of the clerks had never seen several of the federal voting forms, and were unsure how to proceed with them. By better training the clerks on how to handle these documents and absentee ballots coming from overseas, Wisconsin can provide better customer service to the military and overseas voters.
The Federal Voting Assistance Program also provides an online training course for election officials; it introduces state requirements under UOCAVA, explains how to process federal forms, and provides a sense of the challenges faced by military and overseas citizen voters, and how election officials can help them through the process.
The Commission also communicated directly with military and overseas voters to help guide them through the absentee ballot process by electronically tracking their ballot, emailing them the status of their ballot, and informing them how they should proceed in returning the ballot to the correct municipality.
CSG’s Overseas Voting Initiative launched in 2013 through a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Department of Defense’s Federal Voting Assistance Program, to improve the return rate of overseas absentee ballots from service members and U.S. citizens abroad. The link to CSG’s Overseas Voting Initiative can be found here: http://www.csg.org/ovi/default.aspx