They’re well-organized, they’re well-funded and they have a message: Return your absentee ballot, but don’t use the mail.
The Democratic Party of Wisconsin and its supporters have been on an absentee-voting education crusade since the coronavirus pandemic hit in March, advising people how to request, fill out and return their ballots.
Now, in the wake of a Supreme Court decision Monday disqualifying absentee ballots that officials receive after Election Day, the party is scrambling to get out its message, this time imploring voters to return ballots to their election clerk’s office or use drop boxes, rather than putting them in a mailbox.
“We’re phone banking. We’re text banking. We’re friend banking. We’re drawing chalk murals, driving sound trucks through neighborhoods & flying banners over Milwaukee. We’re running ads in every conceivable medium,” Ben Wikler, the party’s chairman, tweeted after the Supreme Court decision.
The party is also in search of missing absentee ballots. About 1,778,157 Wisconsin voters have requested absentee ballots, and of those, 1,451,462 have either returned them or cast their votes in person. That means 326,695 ballots are still out there, according to the latest figures released by the Wisconsin Elections Commission.
With the state shattering its own records this week for new coronavirus cases and deaths, the challenge may come down to making sure those voters leave their homes to turn in their ballots.
The wayward ballots could make the difference whether President Trump or Joseph R. Biden Jr. wins the White House. Though Mr. Biden, the Democratic nominee, has maintained a steady polling lead in Wisconsin, Mr. Trump carried the state in 2016 by the razor-thin margin of 22,748 votes.
Under the Supreme Court ruling, which may have implications in other states, mailed ballots must be received by 8 p.m. on election night or they will not count. A lower court, acknowledging delays in mail delivery, had extended the deadline, ruling that ballots postmarked by Election Day could be counted if they were received up to six days later.
All along, perhaps in anticipation of such a ruling — a similar decision affected voting during the state’s primary in April — the Democratic Party has been advising voters to treat Oct. 20, not Nov. 3, as Election Day, because the U.S. Postal Service estimated that it could take two weeks for an absentee ballot to be mailed out and returned.
Gladys L. Mitchell-Walthour, a professor of public policy at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, believes the negative impact of the court’s decision on Democrats may have been reduced by the educational campaigns mounted this year by the party and voting rights organizations, including the Milwaukee Urban League and Alpha Kappa Alpha, the sorority of Senator Kamala Harris, the Democratic vice-presidential nominee.
“These efforts may lessen the blow of the Supreme Court ruling,” she said.
Barry C. Burden, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said that both Democrats and the Wisconsin Elections Commission had already been emphasizing the importance of returning ballots early.
“It has been the mantra of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin since March,” he said, noting that Wisconsin’s airwaves are inundated with announcements urging listeners to vote early. “It is every message from the national Democratic Party and the state party, telling voters, ‘Get the absentee ballot and turn it in.’”
Even so, some legitimate votes will not be counted as a result of the ruling, Dr. Burden said. “We don’t know what the number will be, but it won’t be zero,” he said.
Lester A. Pines, whose Madison, Wis., law firm, Pines Bach, represented Gov. Tony Evers in the Supreme Court case, predicted a record turnout.
“The number of people voting in Wisconsin in this election is going to be overwhelming,” Mr. Pines said. Some experts have predicted turnout as high as 3.25 million, a number that would exceed the 2016 presidential turnout by 275,000 votes.
Already, the number of votes cast is nearly 50 percent of the total 2016 vote in Wisconsin.
The state does not report the party affiliation of voters who request absentee ballots, but a look at the underlying data suggests that Democrats have taken a strong early lead, with a large percentage of the ballots coming from Democratic strongholds. Milwaukee County, for example, accounts for 43 percent of all the early votes cast.
With the early vote skewing Democratic in Wisconsin as well as in other states, Republicans are relying on heavy Election Day turnout, partly because President Trump has discouraged mail voting through repeated claims that the process is “rigged.”
Republicans believe the Supreme Court decision benefited them because the Democrats have placed so much emphasis on absentee voting, according to Matt Batzel, the Wisconsin-based national executive director for American Majority Action, a conservative voter-education organization.
“As you know, more Republicans are going to vote in person, probably because of their preference to do so and the president has been pushing that,” Mr. Batzel said. “Democrats have really staked their strategy on pushing absentee ballot requests and following up with those individuals. This ruling is deflating to that strategy.”
Wisconsin Democrats have tapped into celebrity connections both to raise money and to promote voter education, including an event hosted last month by the cast of “Parks and Recreation” and a reunion of the “Happy Days” cast this month. The party has also enlisted several celebrities for a “Rocky Horror Picture Show”-themed Halloween event intended to promote voting.
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