City officials in Madison, Wisconsin on Saturday planned to push ahead with an event titled "Democracy in the Park," which will allow, among other things, residents to fill out and turn in their absentee ballots, despite Republican objections to the event.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel first reported on Friday that city officials would run the event at more than 200 locations this weekend, allowing poll workers to answer questions about voting, help voters request an absentee ballot, serve as witnesses for people to fill out ballots they already received, and collect properly filled-out absentee ballots. Wisconsin residents can also register to vote at the Saturday event.
Republicans in the state opposed the event, calling for it to be canceled over their concerns that the plan wasn't safe and could but ballots at risk.
"The threat that this procedure poses to ballot integrity is manifestly obvious," wrote Misha Tseytlin, an attorney for Assembly Speaker Robin and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, in a letter sent Friday to the Madison clerk, asking her to cancel the event and threatening legal action should absentee ballots be collected.
"Given the apparent unlawfulness of the absentee-ballot-collection efforts of your 'Democracy in the Park' campaign, there is a grave risk that all ballots you collect through the campaign will be challenged in court and ultimately invalidated," he added.
At the core of the argument from Republicans is that the events would violate state law, which prohibits early voting from taking place until October 20, according to the Wisconsin Elections Commission. But Mike Haas, the Madison city attorney and the former leader of the Wisconsin Elections Commission, told the Journal Sentinel that the event did not classify as in-person voting because no ballots would be distributed.
Wisconsin Republican Party Chairman Andrew Hitt told the Journal Sentinel that he had similar concerns and was working to recruit Republicans to attend "Democracy in the Park" locations to make sure they didn't become "illegal early vote sites."
—Madison WI Clerk (@MadisonWIClerk) September 25, 2020
"We thought if we got poll workers to be stationed in each city park it would be like a human drop box, only with the added benefit that the poll workers can verify for the voter that everything is complete on their envelope and answer any questions the voters might have about how are these absentees counted and what happens after this," said Maribeth Witzel-Behl, the Madison City Clerk, according to the Journal Sentinel.
At the event Saturday, voters can request an absentee ballot, or, if they already have theirs, they can fill it out in front of a poll worker who can function as a witness and collect their ballot. In a statement on the city of Madison website, Witzel-Behl said that the poll workers have taken an oath of office, calling them "the same dedicated public servants who administer elections at your polling place on Election Day."
Witzel-Behl said that voters were already able to return their absentee ballots by mail and that the city's drop-off boxes had not yet arrived. The Saturday event would provide voters the opportunity to turn in their ballots in person, she said.
"By having poll workers receive the delivery of the absentee ballot, we are able to double-check that the voter has completed the certificate envelope so the ballot can be counted at the polls on Election Day," she added. "The City Clerk's Office is non-partisan. Regardless of who people vote for, our goal is that each eligible voter will be able to cast a ballot and have that ballot counted."
Wisconsin is seen as a key battleground state in the 2020 presidential election. In 2016, voters in the state voted for President Donald Trump over Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton after voting for President Obama in both 2008 and 2012. According to a Friday poll from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Biden leads Trump in the state by 5 points.