WISCONSIN - The COVID-19 pandemic threw the April 7 spring election in Wisconsin a big curveball, with an exponential explosion in demand for absentee ballots.
County and municipal clerks experienced an unprecedented demand - many of the clerks are part-time employees. Delays in obtaining envelopes needed to mail requested ballots out, as well as ever-changing deadlines due to court decisions, contributed to an altogether chaotic experience. Despite all of this, it seems that the clerks responsible pulled it off fairly well.
Wisconsin Election Commission (WEC) Administrator Megan Wolf presented absentee ballot data from the April 7 election to members of the WEC at a special meeting held on Saturday, April 18. That data showed that 87.54 percent of the ballots requested and sent were returned and counted. That was a total of 1,132,923 ballots.
This compares to the April of 2016 presidential preference primary where just 247,052 absentee ballots were issued across the state. The 87.54 percent rate of return was higher than average for a general election, which typically shows an 80-85 percent return of absentee ballots issued.
Absentee ballots returned and not counted came to a total of 22,820. This was 1.76 percent of all ballots returned. Reasons for returned ballots not being counted included: insufficient certification (0.92 percent; postmarked after election day (0.42 percent); ballot not returned by 4 p.m. on April 13 (0.36 percent); superseding ballot returned (0.04 percent); certificate envelope compromised (0.02 percent); and three reasons which statistically came out to be zero percent – voter deceased before election day, voter ineligible, and other.
The total number of unreturned absentee ballots that were sent was 135,417. This amounted to 10.46 percent of ballots requested and sent.
Another 24,336 ballots were not issued as the result of an administrative action. Those administrative actions included: request cancelled by clerk (9,910); request cancelled by voter (9,881); ballot returned undeliverable (4,065); voter refused ballot from a special voting deputy (304); and voter ineligible to receive ballot (176).
At their April 18 special meeting, the WEC voted 6-0 to order the WEC staff to conduct an investigation, compile data, and report to the legislature, the Governor, the WEC, and the public at large, about what happened to the ballots that were sent but not returned, as well as the ballots that were returned but not counted.
“I want to congratulate the WEC staff and the local clerks for what they accomplished in the April 7 election,” Commissioner Mark Thomsen said. “That said, I think we owe it to Senator Feyen and Representative Hintz to provide a report about what happened to absentee ballots in their districts.”
PBS Wisconsin had reported on April 8 that Scott Botcher, Fox Point village manager, said his “staff worked hard to quickly send ballots to all 2,877 residents who requested them. But something strange happened ahead of Election Day: the U.S. Postal Service repeatedly returned unsent ballots without explanation.”
Also on April 8, Madison.com reported that Republican Senator Dan Feyen of Fon du Lac had raised concerns after he learned that a postal worker had discovered “three large tubs” of undelivered absentee ballots from voters in Oshkosh and Appleton. The Milwaukee Election Commission asked the Postal Service to investigate what happened to absentee ballots that never reached voters in that city.
Commissioner Wolf told the WEC that complaints about ballots not being received had come in from throughout the state.
“We need to figure out where the process broke down,” Commissioner Ann Jacobs said. “Determining this will help us to prevent it in the future.”
“Percentage-wise, the return of absentee ballots sent was higher than the historical average,” Commissioner Dean Knudson said. “But, that percentage is of a much larger number of ballots than for previous elections, and so that means the problems are much larger as well and merit an investigation.”
Consolidation of polls
The topic of the drastic consolidation of number of polling places open for in-person voting on April 7 in Milwaukee and Green Bay was a very contentious issue. The Commission deadlocked 3-3 on a motion to call for an investigation into the decisions of the clerks of Milwaukee and Green Bay that resulted in the severe reductions in polling places, and long lines. In Milwaukee, polling places were reduced from 180 to five, and in Green Bay only two polling locations were available.
“I want to thank almost all the clerks for a job well done as well,” Commissioner Bob Spindell said. “However, we can all see the problems that were caused by all the last minute changes, and Governor Evers complicated the process of deploying National Guardsmen to the polls by his office’s communications.”
Spindell was particularly upset about what happened in Milwaukee where he had previously served on the Milwaukee Election Commission.
“Milwaukee voters can usually get in and out of a polling place in five to ten minutes, and I want to compliment Mayor Barrett for that,” Spindell said. “I was absolutely shocked when I heard that polling places would be reduced from 180 to five, and from what I understand, the Milwaukee Election Commission did not hear that the National Guard would be available until the Saturday before the election.”
Commissioner Marge Bostelmann asked about past precedent of the WEC conducting an investigation into one polling place.
“The WEC is charged with overseeing clerks, but our history of that has always been complaint-drivern,” Knudsen responded. “The law allows us to conduct such an investigation, but it has never happened before.”
Knudsen further explained that the typical ratio of polling places to voters across the state is one polling place per five-to-eight-thousand voters. He said that in the April 7 election, the ratio in Milwaukee was one polling place per 120,000 voters, and in Green Bay, one polling place per 50,000 voters.
Commissioner Jacobs pointed out that page eight of Administrator Wolf’s April 7 election report detailed the communication between the Governor’s office and the counties, and she asked if anyone was questioning the accuracy of the report.
“We know that over 50 percent of the state’s usual poll workers declined to work the polls,” Jacobs said. “And we also know that with all the extra safety precautions, it took more time than usual to open polling places.
Commissioner Thomsen also spoke to the issue.
“We all know that Green Bay sued, asking to have the election delayed because they didn’t have enough poll workers and were concerned about safety in the pandemic,” Commissioner Thomsen said. “We don’t know how many people will be infected as a result of going forward with the election, and I don’t think we should attack Milwaukee where most of the state’s COVID-19 deaths have occurred – I’m not into witch hunts, and I don’t think we should question Administrator Wolf or the report she has provided.”
Spindell made a motion that the WEC staff conduct an inquiry into the communication from the Governor’s office to the City and County of Milwaukee about the availability of the National Guard to work at the polls.
The motion failed 3-3 on a roll call vote. Commissioners Spindell, Bostelmann and Knudsen voted aye, and Commissioners Glancey, Jacobs and Thomsen voted no.
Federal CARE grant
Administrator Megan Wolf asked the Commission to approve acceptance of a $7 million grant that has become available to the state through the federal CARE Act. The grant allocates funds to states for election administration through the end of 2020, with the purpose of preventing spread of the virus, and preparing, and responding to the coronavirus through the end of the 2020 election cycle.
Allowed expenses under the grant would be for additional sanitation supplies, and also for preparing for the transition to a larger volume of absentee ballots. Wolf explained that the $1.4 million in matching funds required by the grant would be covered by expenses already incurred on the April 7 election.
Wolf said that her proposal for how to use the funds from the grant covered four areas:
1. improvements to the myvote system, including developing more accurate ballot tracking in the through use of intelligent bar codes, which would allow a voter to track their ballot through the mail just like they are used to doing with packages. The system would also be upgraded to automate processing to increase efficiency, as well as to address some usability issues related to the size of files for drivers license pictures;
2. to help pay for the increased postage costs associated with mailing more absentee ballots;
3. to help pay for the increased amount of envelopes needed;
4. to continue to ensure adequate sanitation and PPE supplies for polling places.
Wolf’s motion called for the Commission to approve acceptance of the grant funds, and empower WEC staff to move forward immediately on implementing the intitatives she has recommended.The motion passed unanimously, 6-0, on a roll call vote.