Republican lawmakers introduce bill to add watermarks to absentee ballots

Clerks say it’s not clear what problem the addition would solve while adding costs, administrative burden

By: - July 18, 2023 5:44 am
An absentee ballots for the April 7 election. (Photo by Henry Redman)

An absentee ballots for the April 7 election. (Photo by Henry Redman)

Late last week, Republican legislators introduced legislation that would require all absentee ballots in Wisconsin to be printed with a watermark as a safeguard against people photocopying ballots. 

The bill, introduced by Rep. Scott Allen (R-Waukesha) and Sen. Romaine Quinn (R-Cameron), comes as Republicans have increasingly focused on Wisconsin’s absentee ballot process as a potential source of election wrongdoing in the years since President Donald Trump’s false allegations that the 2020 election was stolen. There’s no evidence that the copying of ballots is a widespread problem in Wisconsin, yet the voting method has remained relevant in the eyes of Republicans due to two incidents in which people, including a deputy at the Milwaukee Elections Commission, were charged with crimes for ordering other people’s absentee ballots. 

“Absentee ballots, as allowed under current Wisconsin law, are extremely convenient, but they are vulnerable to fraud. Now, more than ever, our democracy relies on our citizens having faith in our election process,” Allen and Quinn wrote in the legislation’s co-sponsorship memo. “This bill would add an extra layer of security for mail-in ballots by requiring absentee ballots to have watermarks on them so copies cannot be made. This is much like current federal law that puts watermarks on U.S. currency to prevent counterfeiting.” 

Yet municipal and county clerks across the state, responsible for designing, printing, mailing, checking and counting both in-person and absentee ballots, say it’s unclear what problem a watermark would solve while potentially adding new problems to the voting process. 

“What are they trying to solve?” Dane County Clerk Scott McDonell says. “Do they have examples of photocopied ballots? We have security features that take care of this problem, hence you’ve never heard of it.”

Under the current process, when an absentee ballot is requested, the municipal clerk mails the ballot with a specifically designed return envelope, according to Diane Coenen, Oconomowoc city clerk and chair of the Wisconsin Municipal Clerks Association. That envelope must be initialed by the clerk so even if someone photocopied a ballot, they’d need to find a way to replicate the envelope for the ballot to be counted. 

“We do not see how a watermark makes the ballot more secure,” Coenen writes in an email. “Ballots can be photocopied, however, an absentee ballot needs an envelope to be delivered in, the envelope must be complete and bears the initials of the Clerk (or designee) and the ballot itself must be initialed by the Clerk (or designee) in the designated absentee section on the back of the ballot. The initials must be in pen, which would create a depression on the envelope and ballot.”

“We believe our process is already transparent,” she continues. “If someone were to try to replicate an absentee ballot, they would need to replicate the absentee certificate envelope along with the label we affix to the envelope. We only count one ballot per voter, and all absentee envelopes must be verified for completeness to be opened.”

McDonell also notes that ballots already include a lot of design requirements and must be redesigned each election cycle to account for the different races being voted in and different candidates running for those seats. He says that adding the watermark may make it difficult for voting machines to accurately scan and count the ballots. 

“Part of it is where does this watermark go?” he says. “When we design ballots, they’re different each time. Now you’re going to have something that can be picked up, like a stray mark from a pen, from the scanner’s point of view. Maybe they want to get rid of scanners, do everything by hand and have results four weeks later.”

Several clerks also said that a watermark requirement for one subset of ballots could add to the already expensive cost of holding an election. Currently, clerks have to try to estimate how many absentee and poll ballots they’ll need for a given election far ahead of Election Day. Right now, when both sets of ballots are identical, a clerk can send any unused absentee ballots to the polls on Election Day so there will be a backup supply if the polling place runs out. 

Clerks say they’d be unable to use those watermarked ballots at the polls, increasing the cost of the election because clerks will need to pay for two full sets of ballots. 

“I’m unsure of the wisdom in providing different ballots entirely between absentee and at-polls,” Green Bay City Clerk Celestine Jeffreys says. 

In an email statement to the Wisconsin Examiner, Allen says the feedback from clerks will be considered carefully as part of the normal legislative process. 

“Bills go through a process before they ever become law, and public input and feedback from key stakeholders is an important element in that process. The feedback being shared with my office by election clerks will be carefully considered. I’m grateful that the process is working as it should.”

A similar bill was introduced last spring, but didn’t receive a hearing. The chairs of the Assembly and Senate election committees have not said if this bill will advance to a hearing, but earlier this year, Assembly elections committee chair Rep. Scott Krug (R-Nekoosa) said he wanted the body to focus on bipartisan election bills. 

Coenen says she thinks Wisconsinites would be better served by education about the security of the absentee ballot system, not another requirement on a ballot’s design. 

“There may be more information about the logic and the reasons behind the draft legislation that we don’t have, but once again, it seems like a solution in search of a problem that is born out of misinformation,” Coenen says. “More voter education in our opinion is what is needed for the public to feel more secure and confident in our democracy.”


Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

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.