Picture still murky one day after election

By: - April 8, 2020 5:01 pm

Madison is one of several local governments across Wisconsin facing a lawsuit from conservative legal outfit WILL. (Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner

One day after Wisconsin’s spring election, the state has just a smattering of the data needed to get a full picture of how the COVID-19 pandemic influenced voting behaviors. 

Since polls closed, a handful of municipalities have reported the number of ballots received so far; a presidential candidate on yesterday’s ballots dropped out of the race and there are still 13,000 absentee ballots that appear to have not been sent by election day. Wisconsin Elections Commission Administrator Meagan Wolfe said that gap is likely a lag in data entry by local elections clerks, not a failure to mail ballots. 

The full scope of in-person and absentee turnout won’t be known until April 13 when results are reported. 

“We’ve been sending out multiple reminders [to clerks] throughout this process for them to enter in the data,” Wolfe said at a video news conference Wednesday. “We’ll continue to do that so we have the best possible data in terms of making sure we understand where there are gaps in our charts — making sure we know if these were sent and it’s just a delay in data entry. We’ll continue to follow up with clerks to make sure we have a clear and transparent picture.”

But even as she downplayed concerns that local clerks were unable to mail all the requested ballots, Wolfe said she was aware of a number of reported problems around the state. 

She said the commission had been told about three bins of ballots from Appleton and Oshkosh that needed to be processed and mailed — but she didn’t know if the ballots were outbound to voters or inbound to clerks. There were also some reports of ballots that were bounced back and returned to clerks for some reason. 

“We’ve heard of ballot mailing issues from a number of communities,” Wolfe said. “In other cases, we’ve been trying to work with the postal service and find if there are irregularities or issues they’re aware of … understanding what the scope is of ballots that might still be in transit. I don’t know if we have a good handle on that yet.”

Wolfe was acknowledging these mailing problems as anecdotal reports come in from around the state that people who had requested absentee ballots either never received them or didn’t receive them in time to return them by the deadline. 

“We take reports like this very seriously. We spent many early mornings and late nights making sure there weren’t any possibilities things were being missed,” she said. “We’ve checked, double checked, rechecked everything to make sure everything was captured.” 

She said the commission worked with clerks around the state to make sure it wasn’t a problem with the state’s MyVote system. 

“When a voter makes their request, the clerk enters that request into the system, they process that request in each of the cities, villages and towns across the state,” Wolfe said. “If they’re marking it as sent, they’ve sent it, they’ve put it into the post office box. If somebody was sent a ballot and it was not received, that would most likely be on the postal service.”

Wolfe also said the state will be able to show how many absentee ballots were invalidated due to some problem. Because of the moving goal posts prior to the election caused by both executive and court orders, the most likely reason for invalidation will be lack of a witness signature or a postmark after the deadline. 

“We should have information about what ballots were returned by the deadline and after the deadline and other requirements like the witness signature,” Wolfe said. 

While the data is largely incomplete, there is some information being reported by the state and municipalities. 

As of Wednesday morning, 1,287,827 absentee ballot requests had been received by local clerks. 1,003,422 ballots have been returned so far, with more expected to be received and counted in the next week. 

The City of Madison reported an unofficial turnout of 50.3%, down from the 2016 spring election which had 66% turnout. Although that election had competitive presidential primaries for both major political parties. 

The city said it received 87,552 ballots Tuesday with 61,279 coming in as absentee votes. 

Milwaukee, a city that faced long lines at the polls as it was forced to consolidate to just five polling places, said it had received 56,489 absentee ballots — fewer than Madison. 

The difference in unofficial turnout between the state’s two biggest cities was reported as concerns about racial disparities were being voiced around the country.  

While the full picture of some election data around the state will become clearer in the next few days, some will never be known. 

Wolfe said the number of ballots that never arrived in the mail may never be known because it’s a statistic that can’t be collected by the state. 

“In terms of people that were sent a ballot and didn’t receive them, that’s an interesting data point that we can’t account for,” Wolfe said. “We might be able to get some info from USPS about ballots that were in transit still after the election, but there isn’t a data point where we would know whether or not a voter received a ballot that was actually sent to them.”

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Henry Redman
Henry Redman

Henry Redman is a staff reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner who focuses on covering Wisconsin's towns and rural areas. He previously covered crime and courts at the Daily Jefferson County Union. A lifelong Midwesterner, he was born in Cleveland, Ohio and graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a degree in journalism in May 2019.