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Concerns Mount In Wisconsin Over Early Voting, Ballots, Voter Suppression As Election Day Looms

MILWAUKEE (CBS) -- There are growing concerns about voting in Wisconsin, a key swing state.

The U.S. Supreme Court this week ruled that ballots that are mailed in after Election Day won't count, and there are also threats of voter suppression.

CBS 2 Investigator Dorothy Tucker took some time to dig into the issues.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020 was day one of early voting in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. One voter who usually waits until Election Day to cast his ballot waited in line on this day, because, he said, it would "be nice to get it over with."

That voter was one of nearly 5,000 enthusiastic people who showed up at 14 polling places and waited in long lines that day.

Another voter in another line said, "I'm staying here. This is history."

COVID-19 is one reason for those longer lines. There are fewer stations inside to vote inside, making the voting process slower. Outside, people stand six feet apart to maintain social distancing, lengthening the lines.

Add to that another reason that frustrates city leaders – last-minute changes to voting laws.

One of those last-minute changes happened in Chicago, at the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, housed inside the Dirksen Federal Courthouse. At the end of June, three federal judges, all appointed by Republican presidents, announced a decision that impacted early voting in the Badger State.

The decision reinstated a hotly contested state law, restricting early voting in Wisconsin to just two weeks before the Nov. 3 election. Milwaukee had a mid-June deadline to agree early voting locations. So the Appeals Court decision came too late for Milwaukee to add more.

"In the middle of a pandemic If we had known it wasn't going to be four weeks as we had planned, we would have explored other options," said Claire Woodall-Vogg, Executive Director of the Milwaukee Election Commission.

She said the Commission could have attempted to have as many as 25 polling sites open for early voters, including schools currently sitting empty due to e-learning and other large venues like sports stadiums and arenas. More polling places would have reduced wait times and lines.

"I think long lines discourage people," said Woodall-Vogg.

Wisconsin has a reputation for discouraging voters.

"We have one of the most extreme and restrictive voter ID laws in the country," said Jay Heck, the Wisconsin Director of the government watchdog group called Common Cause.

The 2016 election was the first one in which the Wisconsin Voter ID law was in effect. That law requires most voters to show an acceptable photo ID to vote on Election Day, in-person or absentee. Heck said four years ago, some voters were caught off guard when they didn't have the proper ID.

"So a lot of people just gave up and walked away from the polling places," said Heck. "In Milwaukee County alone there were 47,000 less votes in 2016 than it had been in 2012. That's a pretty sizable drop-off."

That year, President Donald Trump won Wisconsin by just under 23,000 votes.

"There's no question that because it's more difficult to vote here that that benefited Republicans and hurt Democratic candidates," said Heck.

What else makes voting difficult in Wisconsin? The numerous legal challenges to the voting laws. Since March, seven lawsuits have been filed and most are still pending.

"It's voter confusion, voters trying to navigate the process and find out how elections work when the rules change," said Meagan Wolfe, Wisconsin's chief election official.

Wolfe is the Administrator of the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC). The WEC has spent more than $7 million, money provided by federal funding. Some of the money was spent on providing PPE and sanitization supplies to local election officials to keep polling places safe. Part of the money was also spent on keeping voters updated on all of the last-minute changes involving elections laws and rules.

"When things change after the ballots go out, it's really a challenge to communicate to those voters what the expectation is for them and how they can be successful navigating that process. We've experienced that now a couple of times this year and we think we've laid some really good groundwork," said Wolfe.

"It's unfortunate," said Michael Haas, the City Attorney for Madison, Wisconsin. It's his job to fight some of those lawsuits.

"We're in an environment where lawsuits are filed, legal claims being made – not because of valid legal arguments, but because people want to throw doubt in the mind of voters," said Haas. "It's concerning."

Even events meant to make voting easier come under attack. In Madison, the City Clerk held Democracy in the Park events over a couple of weekends this fall. Voters could drop off absentee ballots in 206 city parks instead of mailing the ballots.

Before the event even kicked off, Republican lawmakers fired off a letter accusing the City Clerk of violating state law and warning any ballots collected at the events may not count.

"I think it raised some unnecessary concern among voters," said Haas.

And then there's what happened this summer in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

During protests that followed the shooting of Jacob Blake – a 29-year-old Black man – by a white police officer, gunfire erupted in the streets on Aug. 25. Kyle Rittenhouse, 17, from Antioch, Illinois is accused of shooting and killing two protesters and wounding a third.

That display of violence in the streets two months ago concerns community organizers about what might happen in the future.

"They are worried about people coming and shooting up a polling place," said M. Adam, who is the Director of Freedom Inc, a community organization in Madison. "They're worried about other forms of white supremacist violence."

Adam is helping people in her community feel safer by offering advice for Election Day and taking some precautionary actions.

"We're recommending people go in small groups," said Adam. "We're setting up text tree so people can notify each other in case there is a white supremacist attack."

The concern is real. But so too is the determination to get voters to the polls.

The Urban League of Greater Madison has held monthly events, weekly meetings and produced videos to encourage voter registration and participation.

"We're concerned that people may be discouraged. And might not think their vote makes a difference," said Dr. Ruben Anthony, the organization's President and Chief Executive Officer. "But I'm here to say your vote does count. It does make a difference."

According to the spokesperson for the Wisconsin Election Commission, as of Tuesday, 1.7 million absentee ballots had been requested in the state. Of those, 1.4 million had already been returned. None will be counted until Election Day

Typically, 3 million people vote in Wisconsin's general election.

The figures indicate there are about 326,000 ballots still out there in Wisconsin. In 2016, President Trump won Wisconsin by a razor-thin margin of 23,000 votes.

To ensure that the remaining ballots get in, Wisconsin state officials are using social media to remind voters to return absentee ballots, as well as sending out news releases and talking to as many reporters as they possibly can. They are also recruiting volunteers at the community level and calling people directly to remind them to return their ballots.

State officials are urging voters to take their ballots to drop boxes or polling places. They are not advising that people mail in their ballots, because with only a week to go before Election Day, there is too much of a risk that the ballots won't be received in time. Any ballot that is not received by 8 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 3 in Wisconsin will not be counted.

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