Sorting through a ‘flawed’ election

What we learned, what went wrong and what comes next

Election Day in Wisconsin (photo by Henry Redman)
Election Day in Wisconsin (photo by Henry Redman)

The arguments over Wisconsin’s 2020 spring elections will go on for a long time. But for now, people across the state are still trying to pick through the pieces of what happened when Wisconsin attempted to hold an election during a pandemic. 

With the reporting of results delayed until April 13, the state is in limbo. It’s unclear how many people ended up voting in person and by mail, how many mailed ballots will end up counting and who was most affected by the last-minute political brawl, according to Barry Burden, director of the Elections Research Center at UW-Madison. 

“The numbers are scattered, we don’t have a complete picture of what happened,” Burden says. “There was a historic use of absentee ballots, but we don’t yet know how many were returned and then counted. The downside of greater use is it will be less perfect. Many are using this for the first time, in somewhat difficult personal circumstances, too. The new mail voters faced the challenge of meeting the deadlines and crossing all the T’s.”

Before the election there was a flurry of activity from local and state leaders, activists and judges. Gov. Tony Evers even attempted a last-minute executive order to delay the election, but according to Burden, it would have been imperfect no matter what. 

“It was a flawed election, any election held in a pandemic would be,” Burden says. “Even one done by mail or pushed to the summer, it would be impossible to run the ideal election. People are voting by different means at a time when they’re distracted or dislocated from their normal lives.”

But the way the election did happen, even if nothing would have been ideal, had plenty of faults, Burden said. 

Barry Burden, professor in the Department of Political Science and director of the Elections Research Center
Barry Burden, political science professor and director of the Elections Research Center at the UW-Madison (photo: UW-Madison)

Although elections officials say it’s a data entry issue, there’s still about a 12,000 ballot gap between the reported number of ballots requested by voters and those sent out by clerks. There are also anecdotal reports from across the state from people who received their ballots late or never received them at all. 

Calls for investigations have already been made after three tubs of absentee ballots for Appleton and Oshkosh voters were found by the postal service the day after the election — never having reached  their final destinations. 

“[There are] lots of stories about people who requested absentee ballots and never received them,” Burden says. “It’s hard to know how widespread that was, whether that’s the fault of the postal service or another part of the system, it looks to have been a somewhat prevalent problem. That is disenfranchising. Some people marched out to a polling place on Election Day, others felt uncomfortable doing that.” 

Whether or not they never received a requested ballot, tens of thousands of Wisconsinites marched to the polls on Tuesday — many in Milwaukee where long lines lasted through the day. Because of a lack of poll workers, the city shut down most available locations, opening just five of the normal 180 sites. 

But like plenty of other aspects of the election, the full picture from the state’s largest city is still unclear, Burden says. 

“It’s hard to say, there are conflicting messages out of Milwaukee,” he says. “It had the biggest cutback of voting opportunities, going from 180 to five, it’s going to be a larger distance to travel. There also looks to be a lot of use of absentee voting in Milwaukee. It looks like in Milwaukee, some voters got the message it was going to be exceptionally difficult to vote on Election Day and shifted to vote by mail.”

Because there were more roadblocks put up for Milwaukee voters, questions of racial disparities rose immediately. Burden says this would have disproportionately affected people of color. 

“More significantly Milwaukee is where the largest segment of the black population in the state resides, in inner-city Milwaukee there’s a lot of poverty and that makes it difficult for people to overcome the barriers that were put in their way this time around,” Burden says. “I do expect people of color were more impacted by this.”

In addition to the racial inequities highlighted, Burden says it also showed the challenges presented by Wisconsin’s decentralized voting system. The Wisconsin Elections Commission was a party in several lawsuits leading up to Election Day and its commissioners were often unable to reach a consensus on important questions that needed answers quickly. 

“The elections commission is in a difficult place because they don’t have a lot of power, they don’t control funding, they can’t issue edicts or orders,” Burden says. “They were receiving fire from all sides, lawsuits, media, voters, politicians.”

He added: “It’s long been a point of pride that the state has a bipartisan commission, not a partisan secretary of state, running elections, but it does lack some of the authority that might be helpful in the time of crisis. The 3-to-3 mix of Republican and Democratic commissioners — they tend to have tie votes on difficult decisions.” 

Moving forward, the desire to compare the data to previous elections will be strong. But, according to Burden, the circumstances under which this election was held make that difficult. The 2019 election didn’t have as many competitive local races and 2016 — the last year with a presidential primary — had competitive races in both major political parties. 

“Even though people are pointing to absentee voting was more substantial, it should be because there are more competitive, intense races,” Burden says. “I don’t know if we’ll ever get a definitive answer because there’s no perfect comparison.”

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As the state and the country move through a contentious presidential election year, Wisconsin is the first bellwether of how the process might go in the middle of the pandemic and there still aren’t perfect answers, according to Burden. 

“This was not a fair election,” Burden says. “The failings we’re seeing in the mail system are problematic. Even though absentee voting is a convenience for some people, it isn’t for others. That’s a number of steps that are going to be challenging for some voters even in November. There will be widespread [mail-in voting] use but it’s not a panacea, there’s still widespread interest in in-person voting.”

And, with Wisconsin’s recent electoral history, the book on the spring election might not be closed for some time, making it even more politically fraught. 

“Hopefully the election’s not close,” Burden says. “If it’s close, the losing side has a really good reason to argue they were harmed. Unfortunately, Wisconsin has a recent history of very tight elections. This could be another close one, that provides an incentive to litigate, complain and ask for recounts.”