Steve Holtzman, a veteran elections official, has ‘never had so many instructions.'
Let's say you live independently in an apartment that happens to be within a senior residential community. You make your own meals and come and go as you wish. You also faithfully vote in each election and, for the sake of convenience, always have an absentee ballot mailed to your residence. But in what has come as a surprise to many, that option is no longer available to residents of retirement homes and care facilities.
Under Wisconsin Act 159, a law championed by Republican lawmakers that went into effect in May, residents in most senior living facilities can no longer vote absentee by mail. Instead their ballots are delivered by so-called special voting deputies, who conduct scheduled absentee voting on the premises. The sealed ballots are then returned to the clerk's office.
"All of the talk was about voter ID," says former Ald. Steve Holtzman, referring to the years of controversy over the state law, now on hold, that requires photo identification to vote. "But nobody was talking about this."
Holtzman is one of the city's 28 trained special voting deputies. Though seasoned in elections work -- he's served as the chief elections officer at the Alicia Ashman Library polling location for a decade -- Holtzman says he is not alone in having a hard time keeping track of the new requirements.
"I put together a binder because I've never had so many instructions," he says.
On Tuesday he leafed through his neatly organized three-ring binder with Greg Smith of the Madison City Clerk's Office as they waited for absentee voting to begin in a community room at Capitol Lakes Apartments on West Main Street. A good deal of the information, though prepared in 2014, was already in need of revision, noted Smith.
The new law expanded the process that had been used only for nursing homes to assisted-living facilities and other senior care residences. Now, city clerks must dispatch special voting deputies to these complexes if more than five registered voters live there. Clerks must also now post a public notice five days in advance of a visit by special voting deputies.
Madison has 18 retirement or care facilities, says City Clerk Maribeth Witzel-Behl, though some, like Capitol Lakes, have separate units that each require their own voting deputies and scheduled voting times.
She estimates the city will spend $10,000 implementing these requirements for the Nov. 4 election.
"On average we are serving about six voters per hour at a lot of these facilities," she says.
Special voting deputies cart absentee ballots in a large red bag from the clerk's office to the retirement homes. Two deputies must be present whenever a ballot is provided. On Tuesday, Roger Pierson, another special voting deputy, joined Holtzman at Capitol Lakes.
There are some exceptions under the new guidelines; residents who winter out of state, for instance, are able to continue to receive mailed absentee ballots.
According to the state's Government Accountability Board, the new rules were passed by the Legislature to prevent the potential for fraud or abuse, since absentee voting at these facilities takes place "outside the traditional safeguards of the polling place."
The law does allow one representative each from the Democratic and Republican parties to act as observers, though neither party has requested this in Madison, says Witzel-Behl.
That has not been the case in Milwaukee, where a kerfuffle ensued over the banning of a Republican observer, who was found by the executive director of the City of Milwaukee Election Commission to have violated state rules.
Melanie Ramey, who heads HOPE of Wisconsin, which represents hospices, says she is alarmed that some people want to allow more observers at senior facilities.
"There is a HIPPA law that seems to be unknown," she says, referring to federal patient privacy standards. "You cannot just go into a facility and into somebody's room without their permission, and this permission needs to be granted in advance. The very idea of people just being able to go into somebody's room is an outrage."