The life cycle of an absentee ballot

Stacks of boxes holding mail are seen at a U.S. Post Office sorting center. Photo by Justin Sullivan | Getty Images
Stacks of boxes holding mail are seen at a U.S. Post Office sorting center. Photo by Justin Sullivan | Getty Images

Almost 1.5 million Wisconsin voters have already requested absentee ballots and more than one million of those ballots have already been returned to municipal clerks. But with a record number of Wisconsinites turning to this voting option for the first time, the absentee ballot process can be confusing and much less tactile than punching a ballot at the polls on Election Day. 

From the moment voters click send on the MyVote.WI.Gov website to request a ballot until the ballot is counted on Election Day, there are rules, safeguards and procedures outlining how the ballot should be transported, filled out and protected. 

The process starts with the request — which voters can do until Oct. 29, although officials recommend allowing more time for the ballot to be sent through the mail. To request a ballot voters need to be registered and provide a valid photo ID. 

The deadline for online voter registration has already passed but voters can go to their municipal clerks’ offices to register in person. 

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Once the ballot is requested, municipal clerks’ offices review the application before folding and stuffing the ballot into the proper envelopes and putting it in the mail. 

After Wisconsin’s April election that left thousands of ballots lost in the mail stream, the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC) added intelligent mail barcodes to the state’s absentee ballots — which allow clerks to have real-time information about where ballots are and voters can access basic information about their ballot’s status. 

Once a voter receives a ballot, it must be filled out, placed in the provided return envelope and signed. Wisconsin has a witness requirement for absentee ballots which means someone must watch the ballot be completed and sign the envelope as well. The witness must also provide an address. 

The completed ballot can be returned in several ways. The ballot can be dropped into the mail (officials recommend allowing extra time for the ballot to arrive). In many Wisconsin municipalities the ballot can be brought to a designated drop box (check with local clerks on locations and availability). Voters can also drop ballots off in person at local clerks’ offices or bring them to in-person absentee voting locations (hours vary by municipality). 

Throughout this process voters can check the MyVote website to see where in the process their ballot is at — including when it has been received by the clerk. 

If a voter requests an absentee ballot and chooses to vote in-person instead, that option is only available if the voter has not yet put the ballot in the mail. 

Once received by the clerks, ballots take different routes to be counted depending on the municipality. 

Milwaukee and 38 other municipalities maintain a central count location for absentee ballots. Ballots in central count municipalities will be brought to that location by three inspectors to maintain the chain of custody. 

In most places, however, a voter’s ballot will be sent to the polling location for the ward he or she lives in. 

No absentee ballots can be opened until polls open on Election Day and absentee ballots cannot be counted until polls close at 8 p.m., though they can be reviewed, opened and fed into machines throughout the day. This is similar to the in-person voting process in which the voter puts their ballot into the tabulator, but it isn’t considered “counted” until the polls close. 

Local election officials take each absentee ballot out of a container and read the voter’s name out loud. The envelope is reviewed to make sure it isn’t open and has been signed by the voter and witness. 

After those criteria are met, the ballot is opened, a voter number is issued and that number is noted on the voter list. The ballot is placed in a box to be counted later. 

In the 39 central count cities, all ballot processing will happen in a single location. 

In other cities, absentee ballots are counted at each polling location in the same room where in-person voters come and go on Election Day.. Many municipal clerks have recruited extra poll workers so some can help in-person voters while others only work on counting absentee ballots. 

Counting of all ballots begins after polls close. The counting of ballots is a publicly noticed meeting. 

The prevalent use of absentees in the central count cities will create one wrinkle for counting votes. Typically, county clerks report election results as voting precincts finish counting — which will still happen as always. 

However, when a precinct in a central count city is reporting 100% completion, that isn’t including the votes of people who live in that precinct but voted absentee. Those ballots are being counted at the central count location but go towards the total in the voter’s precinct. This could lead to vote counts on county websites continuing to rise even after precincts report 100%. 

In non-central county municipalities, the absentee ballots will be in the home precinct so this isn’t an issue. 

After the counting is completed on Election Day, the results go through three levels of certification. The municipality and the county each hold a Board of Canvass meeting before the state certifies results in December. All three levels of certification are also public meetings. 

Election Day is Nov. 3 and in-person absentee voting runs through Nov. 1.