As deadlines, court battles and the election loom, officials urge patience

Madison voting
The Wisconsin Capitol on spring election day, April 7, 2020. (Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)

The day before the deadline for Wisconsin residents to register to vote online or by mail, a number of state elections officials held a virtual press conference to advocate for calm and patience as they count ballots in November. 

The biggest concern for election officials as the state hits its first deadline of the season was that they wouldn’t be afforded the time to make sure all ballots are counted. 

President Donald Trump has repeatedly made false claims about the validity of absentee ballots and insisted that final results must be announced on election night. 

However official results are never available on Election Day in Wisconsin. Unofficial results are reported to county clerks after polls close at 8 p.m. but results aren’t finalized until the boards of canvass are completed at the municipal and county level and then certified by the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC). 

“Election results is, of course, one of the big ones here,” WEC Administrator Meagan Wolfe said. “Election night results are never official. Never in the history of elections has an election night had official results of an election, that’s not a thing. Voters don’t know that, they don’t know all that goes into certifying an election.”

Wolfe also said that each level of certification is also a public process that voters can attend just like any other government meeting because “nothing in elections happens behind a locked door.” 

“All those things always take about a month,” Wolfe said. “This election will be no different. We’re not going to lessen our requirements, the legal standards for what needs to be done to certify an election. All of those things still stand and I think voters need to be aware of that. Anything you see on election night is never official and it never has been official.” 

Even with a potential longer wait for unofficial results because of the expected increase in absentee ballots — nearly half of registered voters in Wisconsin have already requested their ballot — Wisconsin does have some experience with waiting for results

In April, when a flurry of last-minute court cases extended some deadlines, the state’s spring election results did not come until a week after Election Day. Clerks were unable to even begin counting ballots on Election Day but the results were reported when they were available as usual and with no issues. 

Also on the press conference were election officials from Dane, Milwaukee and Waukesha counties, who all said they expected absentee ballots to be counted by the early hours of Wednesday, Nov. 4. 

Dane County Clerk Scott McDonell estimated that at least seven of every ten ballots in the county will be mail-in absentee — compared to one in ten in previous years. That amount of absentee ballots will slow down the process of counting, but waiting all night for results isn’t new. 

“That’s happened before, this is nothing new from our perspective,” he said. “It can be midnight, one o’clock, later before we get results from an individual polling location. Sometimes that’ll just be one or two [locations] but this time I think it will be a lot more — but from our point of view this is not that different.” 

Waukesha County Clerk Meg Wartman said she also expects ballots to be counted by around midnight and Milwaukee County Elections Director Julietta Henry said she expects counting to be completed between 3-6 a.m. 

The press conference was held as news of excessively long wait times for early voting poured in from other states. Officials in Wisconsin said a long wait for early voting isn’t necessarily the result of voter suppression. 

McDonell said he expects short waits on Election Day and Wartman said that early voting lines are more likely the result of available space concerns than efforts to disenfranchise people. 

“I’m thinking there’s going to be more lines for our community during that in-person absentee voting,” Wartman said. “Not because so many people are going out but more so because of the virus and spacing that’s going to be in place. Some of our municipalities have pretty small offices and if they’re going to limit the people [inside] and keeping at every six feet, those lines are going to look and seem long. Our offices just aren’t set up for having a large group of people go through.” 

Officials also said that they’ve got reserve lists of poll workers to stop a potential shortage of volunteers like the one that happened in April, causing long lines in some municipalities — including Milwaukee

The deadline to request an absentee ballot online or by mail is Oct. 14. Absentee ballots can be requested until Oct. 29. Early voting begins Oct. 20 and hours vary by municipality until Nov. 1. Voters can still register in person at their municipal clerk’s office until Oct. 30. Election Day is Nov. 3 and information can be found at MyVote.WI.Gov