Stop the presses: printing shops forced by Supreme Court to stop work on ballots

Wisconsin Supreme Court
Wisconsin Supreme Court (Creative Commons attribution 2.0)

When the Wisconsin Supreme Court ordered that the mailing of absentee ballots be halted Thursday afternoon, the Color Vision printing office in Edgar was two hours away from finishing Marathon County’s 98,000 requested ballots. 

The order was made so the court could decide whether to add Green Party presidential candidate Howie Hawkins’ name to the ballot — days before elections clerks are required by federal and state statutes to mail absentee ballots to voters. 

Color Vision has been printing election materials for nearly 25 years, according to owner Ken Reemstma. The delay just makes it harder for the elections clerks, he says. 

“The chaos is what it is, we have to have everything done by the time the absentee ballots have to go out,” he says. “We were right down to the wire. [The clerks] have to have these things on Monday then get everything to their townships, get them settled in so they can get everything together. It gets a little tight.” 

“It is what it is,” he continues. “The state never gives us enough time, never gives the county clerk enough time. We’re almost the last ones in line.”

When the Supreme Court made its order, county and municipal clerks across the state had to drop what they were doing in order to provide the court with information about how far into the process they were. 

“I have contacted the printer to pause the printing, but was told they are ‘almost done,’” Marathon County Clerk Kim Trueblood wrote in her response to the court. “We went ahead and ordered more ballot stock in case we have to re-print 90 thousand some ballots so that [they] would be available right away. There’s no way we could meet the statutory requirement to have ballots in the hands of our clerks on Sept 16 if we have to do a re-print.”

Color Vision had already finished printing Columbia County’s ballots when the order came, Reemtsma says. Those ballots will probably be arriving at the county clerk’s office on Friday. 

If the court grants Hawkins the relief he’s requested and allows him on the ballot, many counties will need to reprint their election materials. If that’s the case, Color Vision is already prepared with a backup supply of paper, Reemtsma says. 

“If they’re going to have a reprinting of the ballots, we have paper on hand,” he says. “We’ve got it ordered, it will be here, some of it later today. If it happens we’re ready to go.”

Reemtsma, who says he takes pride in everything he prints, wishes the decision would have been made more quickly — but he has low expectations.. 

“It would be nice if they’re going to hold things up — it takes 4, 5 days to do something — it’d be nice if they make a decision,” he says. “Then again, this is politics as usual and government as usual.”

For the county and municipal clerks, the decision adds more stress to an already stressful electoral year. 

Trueblood could need to reprint 98,000 ballots. Milwaukee County could need to reprint 331,000 already printed ballots. Dane County has already printed 491,000 ballots, all of which would need to be reprinted. 

Reprinting ballots costs time and money for clerks in big and small counties. 

For Price County, the cost of reprinting would only be about $4,000, says clerk Jean Gottwald. But her department’s annual budget is about $95,000. A Supreme Court order to reprint ballots would cost Gottwald more than 4% of her annual budget.

“It is terribly confusing and expensive,” Gottwald says. “Municipal clerks have to absorb all that time and cost of mailing. The time clerks are having to process them and the expense of mailing them, everybody’s budgets are blown through the roof.”

Gottwald’s ballots arrived in the mail on Friday, she says. She told the municipal clerks in her county that they could come pick ballots up on Monday but not to start mailing them until the Wisconsin Elections Commission gives the go ahead — despite the statutory deadline to mail the first round of ballots by Sept. 17. 

“[I’m] very anxious,” Gottwald says. “As I’m sure everybody in the state is, we have federal deadlines, now they’re saying that might not happen or it might be changing. My ballots just showed up today from the printer; that would be a mess.” 

THE MORNING NEWSLETTER
Subscribe now.

After the chaos of Wisconsin’s April election, and the May special election in the 7th Congressional District, which includes Price County, Gottwald has been hard at work all year. Another last-minute change is frustrating. 

“It would be nice if things were tightened up where these last-minute attempts weren’t even allowed,” she says. “Once it reaches a certain point you’ve got to let the election administrators get on with administering the election. To put us on hold for a lawsuit is ridiculous.”

In a court filing, the Wisconsin Department of Justice said that some jurisdictions have already mailed ballots, potentially causing massive confusion for voters who would now be receiving two ballots in the mail. 

“Massive confusion would occur among voters who receive two different ballots,” the DOJ response states. “Would they understand which ballot to return? That their first ballot was invalid, even if they had already filled it out and returned it? That they could fill out and return a second ballot, even if they had already returned one? That they could fill out and return two ballots without committing voter fraud?”

Gottwald says she hopes that the issue is cleared up and voters will be able to cast their ballot as if nothing had ever happened. 

“By the time that the elector gets the ballot, hopefully that will be resolved and they’ll just be able to vote the ballot and be done with their process,” Gottwald says. 

The Wisconsin Supreme Court had not yet made a decision on the case Friday afternoon. Clerks are required to mail the first round of ballots Sept. 17 by state law and are required by federal law to mail ballots to voters overseas and in the military by Sept. 19.