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Clerks pulled off pandemic polling very well
Voting Method

WISCONSIN - Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC) Administrator Meagan Wolfe presented her department’s report on the absentee ballots issued for the April 7 election. The commission had voted 6-0 at their April 18 meeting to request that such a report be prepared for the Governor and the Legislature.

“Nothing is sugar coated in this report,” Wolfe told the commission. “We need to identify ways to improve the absentee ballot process and begin to prepare now for the August and November elections.”

Wolfe told the commission that the number of absentee ballots requested in the April 7 election had been “unprecedented.” The number of ballots cast by mail in that election was 964,433. This compares to 170,614 in the April 2016 election, and lesser quantities yet in the November 2016, April 2017, April 2018, November 2018, and April 2019 elections.

“Despite the unprecedented levels of absentee ballots requested, voters, local election officials and election administration systems largely adapted to the demand and managed the volume successfully,” Wolfe said. “At a macro level, the processes to request, receive, return and review absentee ballots proceeded normally and without inconsistencies. At a local level, the extraordinary volume placed enormous stress on election officials, election systems, and the United States Postal Service (USPS).”

Part of the WEC’s investigation involved reaching out to local election officials across the state. WEC’s Rob Kehoe said that feedback received from those officials described the process of fulfilling absentee ballot requests as “crushing, unbelievable, and overwhelming.”
Date absentee ballot requested

Ballot data

Overall, the WEC report showed that 25.4 percent of ballots were cast in-person on April 7, and 74.6 percent were cast absentee. This compares to April 2019, where 87.90 percent of ballots were cast in-person, and 12.10 percent were cast absentee.

Overall, on April 7, there were 1,303,985 absentee ballots sent. Of those, 1,159,800 were returned and counted (88.9 percent); 2,659 were returned and rejected after April 13 (0.20 percent); 20,537 were returned and rejected for other reasons (1.57 percent); and 120,989 ballots were never returned (9.27 percent).
Ballots rejected

The number of absentee ballots rejected in the April 7 election was very consistent with percentages in prior elections. In the April 7 election that percentage was 1.8 percent. This is similar to the 2.5 percent in April 2016; 2 percent in April 2017; 2.3 percent in April 2018; and 1.5 percent in April 2019.

According to Wolfe, most absentee ballots submitted by mail were returned prior to election day, but nearly seven percent arrived at the USPS window between election day and the court ordered deadline of 4 p.m. on April 13. 

“That means over 1.1 million ballots were returned in accordance with current Wisconsin state law that requires ballots to be received by 8 p.m. on election day in order to be counted,” Wolfe said. “Judge Conley’s extension of the ballot return deadline to 4 p.m. on April 13 resulted in an additional 79,054 ballots being counted.”

Election mechanics

According to Wolfe, Wisconsin has the most decentralized administration of elections in the nation. That means that on April 7, 1,850 municipal election officials and 72 county election officials had to adapt to significant changes from court rulings, public health guidance and voter behavior shifts toward voting by mail.

Most voters prior to the April 7 election had used the MyVote website to look up their voter registration status. That shifted in the weeks leading up to the April 7 election to using the website to request an absentee ballot.

“To accommodate this rapidly evolving environment, WEC staff were required to make more than a dozen changes to the MyVote system in the 60 days prior to the election,” Wolfe explained. “Deadlines for online voter registration and for absentee requests were extended multiple times by court actions, and deadlines for ballots to be returned and witness requirements were also changed initially, but then changed back.”

The other system maintained by WEC that is used in elections is WisVote. This system is used by local election officials to administer elections. The system was built according to the way Wisconsin typically conducts elections, with most voting taking place in-person at polling places.

“Clerk activity in WisVote prior to the election was much higher than any prior election because clerks were all entering and issuing record numbers of absentee ballots at the same time,” Wolfe said. “The system performed very well, but required around-the-clock monitoring and auditing to handle this increased traffic.”

Wolfe said that like MyVote, WisVote required several updates to accommodate extended deadlines for absentee requests and online registration. It was necessary for the staff to change automation in assigning voter records, and allow requests according to new deadlines. Capacity of the system was also a potential issue that was watched very closely. Multiple increases in memory were required to keep pace with absentee requests and attached copies of photo IDs.

Proposed upgrades

Wolfe told the commission that overwhelming demand was foremost among challenges reported by local clerks. Other issues  were clerks learning to use more advanced features in WisVote to process the volume, overload of clerk e-mail accounts, hiring extra help, and postal service challenges. The situation was further exacerbated in the midst of all of this, with the requirement to open polling places for in-person voting, training new election workers, and adhering to health department guidance about election safety.

“WEC is committed to reducing the administrative burden of data entry required by the current absentee ballot request process,” Wolfe said. “Proposed adjustments to the system include generating a pending absentee request in WisVote that can be approved or denied once the photo ID is reviewed, assisting clerks with some voter communications, and conducting a voter outreach campaign with CARES Fund grant money.”

Another big upgrade will be the inclusion of USPS Intelligent Mail Barcodes to ballot envelopes. This will allow voters to track their ballot in the mail like they would track a package.

Discussion points

Chairman Dean Knudsen asked Wolfe about an ‘indefinitely confined voter’ statistic that was shared with the commissioners at the meeting but had not been included in the report.

“The 195,000 increase in indefinitely confined voters is not included in the report you gave us,” Knudsen said. “I’m wondering if we should include that number in this report.”

Wolfe responded that the number was likely an anomaly related to the fact that the health crisis had escalated so short a time before the April 7 election.

“Voters had very little time to decide to vote absentee instead of in-person before the April 7 election, Wolfe said. “Those numbers will likely be changing before the August election as clerks are reaching out to voters to verify their status now.”

Many voters expressed that they were not comfortable or able to make contact with another person in order to obtain the required witness signature in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. These voters elected to self-designate themselves as ‘indefinitely confined,’ with the witness signature requirement then waived.

Commissioner Bob Spindell attributed the large increases to the actions of clerks in Dane and Milwaukee counties, and moved to have the indefinitely confined voter statistics included in the report. Commissioner Marge Bostelmann seconded the motion. The motion failed on a roll call vote 3:3, with Glancey, Jacobs and Thomsen voting no.

Commissioner Mark Thomsen raised the concern that were it not for Judge Conley’s decision to allow clerks to continue to receive ballots mailed on or before election day up until 4 p.m. on April 13, over 79,000 voters who “did everything right” would not have been able to vote.

WEC’s Rob Kehoe pointed out that without Judge Conley’s decision, the number of rejected ballots would have been 7.8 percent instead of 1.8 percent. This number would have been way out of line with numbers from prior elections.

“Without Conley’s intervention, this would have been a travesty on a macro scale,” Thomsen said. “It took the intervention of a federal court to save us from our own sins, and I believe that we have an obligation to tell the public that in this report.”

Because the report does not make this point clear, Commissioner Thomsen moved to submit the report to the Governor and the Legislature as a draft, rather than a final report. Commissioner Jacobs seconded the motion. The motion failed on a roll call vote 2:3, with Thomsen and Jacobs voting for it and Commissioner Glancey not voting as she had lost her electronic connection to the meeting at the time of the vote.

Chairman Knudsen then moved to submit the report as-presented to the Governor and Legislature as the final report. The motion was adopted 4:2, with Thomsen and Jacobs voting no.