(Photo by Donna Kallner)

By local standards, I live on the beaten path. A state highway runs past my house. There’s a four-way stop just two miles away. There are neighbors close enough to hear my dog bark at anyone walking on the road, but not so close I feel the need for curtains on the windows.

The all-volunteer fire department, the township’s road maintenance department, and the only polling place are all located within a couple of miles of my house in the southern part of the Town of Wolf River. 

The township is big, though – 118.8 square miles, compared to the 6 square miles that is typical in Wisconsin. So clusters of homes on the far edges of the township feel remote even by local standards. Year-round, to reach two of those areas the best routes are via roads in adjacent counties. So it’s no surprise that people who live in those areas generally travel those other roads to work, school, shopping and more. Their mail carriers come out of different post offices. They even have different Zip codes than the rest of the township. Their 911 emergency calls are likely to go to adjacent counties that have to reroute them back here. Even on the best routes, it takes a long time to get there with an ambulance or fire truck.

That type of location can affect everything from school district boundaries to how soon your road gets plowed after a snowstorm to your homeowner’s insurance rate, which is affected by your proximity to a fire station. But in a rural municipality with only one polling place, it doesn’t change where you vote.

In some states, voting outside the polling place is only an option for people who will be away from their home county on election day or those with an illness or disability who know ahead of time that they won’t be able to make it to the polls. In Wisconsin, though, you don’t need an excuse to vote by absentee ballot. That makes the option to vote outside the polls important to rural residents who live far from the polling place – especially those who work outside the area.

To be clear, absentee voters submit proof of identity, just like in-person voters. To cast a ballot in person, the voter must first present valid identification, state their name and address, and sign the poll book in the presence of two poll workers. Only then do they get a voter number and ballot. There are some exceptions. For example, crime victims who might be endangered by public disclosure of their address can preregister as “confidential electors,” which requires submission of a notarized affidavit to support their request.

When a registered voter in Wisconsin requests an absentee ballot, they’re still required to present valid identification, although it can be submitted electronically. Once that ID is on file, they can request an absentee ballot for one or more upcoming elections in the current year. To complete the request they must certify:

…to the best of my knowledge, that I am a qualified elector, a U.S. citizen, at least 18 years old at the time of the next election, having resided at the above address for at least 28 consecutive days preceding this election, with no present intent to move. I am not currently serving a sentence including probation or parole for a felony conviction, and am not otherwise disqualified from voting. I certify that all statements on this form are true and correct. If I have provided false information I may be subject to fine or imprisonment under State and Federal laws.

Absentee ballot requests go to a township or other municipal clerk. That person makes sure the voter gets the proper ballot(s) for their address (in my township, there are two wards and two different school districts). The clerk initials and logs ballots sent out, and logs ballots returned. Along with ballots they send instructions on how to complete the process of voting absentee. It’s very important to read and follow directions. 

In Wisconsin, those directions include the requirement to have your ballot submission witnessed. Your vote is private, so no one needs to see the choices you mark on the ballot. But they do need to verify that you filled out your own ballot. Your witness must be a U.S. citizen at least 18 years old and not a candidate in the election. You place your marked ballot in the certificate envelope, seal the envelope in the presence of the witness, sign and date the certificate envelope, then have the witness sign and write in their home address in the correct places. Without those signatures and a witness address, the ballot cannot be counted.

Absentee ballots are counted while the polls are open in Wisconsin. In a rural area, the people processing absentee ballots are probably the same poll workers checking in-person IDs, assigning voter numbers, and getting you to sign the poll book. They inspect the certificate envelope for signs of tampering and double-check the voter and witness signatures and witness address. Then they read aloud the voter’s name and address so any election observers present can hear.

With the same tally sheet used for in-person voting, they assign a voter number, find the voter’s name and address in the poll book, and record the voter number with a notation that indicates the vote was cast absentee. They note the voter number on the certificate envelope and remove the ballot(s), confirming that the clerk’s initials are where they’re supposed to be. Only then do they cast the ballot(s).

Once the absentee ballots are cast, certificate envelopes go into a package that is sealed and delivered to the county clerk’s office along with a copy of the poll book and other documents and ballots. Those are elements of the paper record that can be examined to confirm the vote count. In Wisconsin, even our electronic voting machines must produce a paper record that an in-person voter can verify before the final act of casting a ballot. Absentee voters may not be able to do that, but sworn election inspectors must reconcile numbers across the board – from voter numbers to votes cast by any means.

The exact number of votes may not equal the number of voters. Undervoting is common – for example, when you just can’t bring yourself to vote for any candidate in a race. Overvoting is where a person makes too many selections. One benefit of electronic machines is that they give the voter a chance to review and correct choices before actually casting the ballot. On paper ballots, whether voted in person or absentee, overvoting is caught during the count. Those ballots are disallowed and go into a separate sealed container along with an inspector’s statement. It really pays to read and follow instructions carefully. 

What if someone who got an absentee ballot decides instead to vote in person? There are rules, and they may be able to do that. That is if their absentee ballot has not already been cast. If the poll book shows the person was already assigned a voter number for an absentee ballot, they may not vote again in person. 

For many voters, there’s a sense of pride that comes with signing the poll book in person. And in rural areas, it’s common for people to ask poll workers for their voter number. It gives us a sense of the turnout for an election.

But I disagree with people who believe that all voters should present themselves at the polls on election day to cast their vote. I’ve seen people who raced from work on dark roads (where you never know what might jump out in front of you) to get to the polls before they close. I’ve seen voters so frail or ill they appear to be on the brink of collapse. I admire their sense of civic duty but prefer to not share their infectious disease. And if they fall and break a hip in a rural polling place, I guarantee the wait for an ambulance will feel like forever.

I can sympathize with voters who’ve been hammered by the message that voter fraud is a clear and present threat to our democracy. I can also sympathize with those getting the opposite message – that the real clear and present danger is from efforts to suppress voting. But I don’t appreciate how both sides use fear tactics to sow mistrust. Sadly, they’ve been too successful to stop unless voters on both sides and the middle demand it. 

We The People must get specific about what we think isn’t working in our election processes and why, and what we think would be better and why. Then let the people we elect know we hold them accountable for doing the job.

Donna Kallner writes from rural northern Wisconsin. She wrote here about how poll workers abide by their oath to protect the voting process.

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