Written by Max Witynski for Wisconsin Watch

Lee Ann Medina of Milwaukee says a constellation of factors conspired to prevent her from casting a ballot in Wisconsin’s spring primary.

Medina registered online and got her absentee ballot in the mail without much trouble, she says. But she did not realize she would need a witness signature, which posed a problem since she was living alone and practicing social distancing. So she considered in-person voting instead.

Lee Ann Medina stands outside of Milwaukee City Hall after delivering her absentee ballot on Aug. 11, 2020. Medina did not vote in the April election because she was unable to secure a witness for her absentee ballot and feared in-person voting during the pandemic.

However, Medina — who does not drive and is immunocompromised — says she was uncomfortable taking public transportation to a polling place. She also feared the strain of waiting in line for several hours because a lack of poll workers had forced Milwaukee to reduce its number of polling places from about 180 to five.

“I was in a conundrum,” Medina says. “And I had to make a decision … to vote and risk my life, or to not vote and lose what I feel is my right.”

Ultimately, Medina did not vote.

Medina says she would like to see more communication from election officials about different options for getting absentee ballots witnessed.

To avoid the type of disenfranchisement that Medina suffered, Wisconsin officials are implementing a series of changes to help make mail-in balloting smoother in November.

Relative to other states, Wisconsin has already lowered the barriers to casting a mail-in ballot in some ways: the state offers no-excuse voting by mail and provides a wide window of opportunity to register and request a ballot. However, strict voter ID laws and problems during the April primary, which included thousands of rejected ballots, have sparked calls for Wisconsin to do better.

Wisconsin election officials are working to avoid a repeat of the state’s chaotic presidential primary and ensure a smooth, largely mail-in voting process in November. Still, big challenges remain, especially when it comes to minimizing disenfranchisement and counting votes quickly.

The Wisconsin Elections Commission — the bipartisan state agency responsible for administering Wisconsin’s elections — is deploying new strategies to facilitate participation and improve voter confidence. That includes sending absentee voting guidelines and applications to 2.6 million registered voters and implementing intelligent mail barcodes to track ballot envelopes through the postal system.

Meanwhile, municipal clerks are scaling up staffing at offices and polling places, installing drop boxes and providing safe in-person ballot-casting options to move the election forward despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

But experts and advocates say Wisconsin could go further to improve or expand absentee balloting, including by allowing clerks to process absentee ballots before Election Day; requiring them to notify voters about rejected ballots and allowing voters to “cure” them; extending the deadline for clerks to receive absentee ballots at their offices; and ending witness requirements. Some of those steps are the subject of ongoing lawsuits.

“I think the Legislature is going to do nothing before Election Day,” says Barry Burden, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor who runs the Elections Research Center. “There’s really not been interest in getting a legislative fix. So if anything happens between now and November, it will come through the courts.”

Wisconsin also could mail absentee ballots to all registered or eligible voters — which Republican legislative leaders oppose, arguing it could lead to fraud. Instead, 2.6 million registered Wisconsin voters will automatically get applications for absentee ballots this month.

With President Donald Trump undermining confidence in the U.S. Postal Service and mail-in voting — which he claims without evidence will lead to “the most inaccurate and fraudulent” election in U.S. history — voters will need to be proactive if they want to make sure their votes count.

But clerks, Republicans who run the state Legislature and nonprofit, legal and academic experts all believe the election can be held safely and securely. With enough planning and reasonable safeguards, they say, Wisconsin can expect to see a fair mail-in process on Nov. 3 — and the state might even see the highest turnout ever.

Wisconsin’s pandemic election

As the COVID-19 pandemic intensified last spring, a last-minute surge in absentee ballot requests overwhelmed Wisconsin’s 1,850 municipal clerks.

Ultimately, about 74% of voters in the April primary decided to forego the polls on Election Day and cast ballots by mail or earlier in person. Just 10% used those options in April 2016. That meant clerks had to process more than 900,000 mail-in ballot requests, meeting enormous demand in just a few weeks.

Nikki Perez, a municipal clerk for the city of Madison, Wis., is seen in the ballot sorting room of Madison’s City-County Building on Aug. 5, 2020 as workers organize absentee ballots for the election on Aug. 11.

“When those requests really started picking up, we were probably working 12 to 14 hour days, around the clock, throughout the weekend,” says Nikki Perez, a certified municipal clerk on the emergency management team at the Madison City Clerk’s office. “We had to figure out a way to pretty much mass produce these absentee requests … I think at one point we had over 20,000 unread emails in our voting inbox.”

Mail-in ballots require much more front-end work for clerks than in-person votes because of the additional time required to check IDs on file, print, label, fold, stuff, authorize and mail ballot envelopes. After ballots are returned, clerks must verify that voter and witness signature and address requirements have been met, contact voters who did not meet requirements, open envelopes, feed ballots through machines and, finally, tally the votes.

Madison mobilized more than 50 volunteers to help the clerk’s office with this process, Perez says, even at a time when social distancing was a priority. Milwaukee also needed extra help, according to Milwaukee Elections Commission Executive Director Claire Woodall-Vogg.

“Normally in an April election we would have had about 100 workers, and instead we had 250,” she says. Part of the challenge stems from Wisconsin law, which forbids clerks from opening and processing returned absentee ballots until Election Day. A massive shift from in-person to mail-in voting creates a huge backlog of ballots that must be processed in a matter of hours.

“In April, our Election Day was from 6 a.m. to 4:30 a.m. (Wednesday) because we had at least three polling places that arrived with their materials after 4 a.m. that day, just because it took time to feed those absentee ballots through the tabulator,” Perez says.

Smaller jurisdictions also faced challenges last spring. Rib Mountain was one of several towns in central and eastern Wisconsin with the highest rates of absentee ballot rejections. Clerks there rejected 112, or 9% of mail-in ballots, according to analysis by APM Reports.

Town Clerk Joanne Ruechel says the rejections were mostly due to residents not signing the certification on the ballot, not having the ballot witnessed, or providing no contact information for her to follow up with them if there was an error.

Such problems were common statewide, leading to more than 23,000 rejections overall. Staff in  smaller jurisdictions are less likely to have time to “cure,” or correct, ballots that do not satisfy requirements. This can lead to higher local rejection rates. Clerks in Wisconsin are encouraged, but not required, to notify voters if their absentee ballots are rejected.

Clerks, commission strive for clarity

To reduce confusion and the chance of rejection, Ruechel says she is providing new information to voters in absentee ballot envelopes.

“(In August) I sent a separate sheet with a photocopy of the envelope, saying ‘Voter signs here, date, the witness signs here and the address goes here,’” Ruechel says. “Everything is in color and highlighted, so they actually have a visual of what their envelope should look like when they get done voting.”

Joanne Ruechel, town clerk of Rib Mountain, Wis., sent out 1,348 absentee ballots ahead of the Aug. 11, 2020 partisan primary, and included a sample ballot with instructions on how to fill it out, to try to prevent the errors she saw during the April 7, 2020 primary. She made these instructions by hand, as they were not provided by the county or state for the election. Photographed Aug. 11, 2020.

The Wisconsin Elections Commission also approved new, simplified instructions for mail-in voters.

And the agency is sending voting information to most registered Wisconsin voters — 2.6 million people — advising them how to quickly request an absentee ballot online and providing a paper application if they prefer to make the request by mail. Requests can be made until late October, and clerks will begin sending out ballots on Sept. 17 — 47 days before the election — allowing ample time to process early requests.

“We learned a lot from what happened in April,” says Elections Commission spokesman Reid Magney. “So our team was able to do a very thorough assessment, (and) figure out what it was we needed to do … to make that process much easier.”

Magney says software has been streamlined to make it simple for clerks to check IDs and automatically generate printed labels without as much manual entry. Perez says the upgrades made a big difference for her office. She calls the process “insanely faster” compared to April, when thousands of ballots were waiting in the queue.

Tracking the ballots

Meanwhile, intelligent barcodes on envelopes will enable tracking from clerks’ offices to voters and back again in many jurisdictions  — a new feature for the upcoming election. Voters can track their ballots online, rather than having to call a clerk to ask.

However, many smaller jurisdictions that do not use the online WisVote system will not be able to use the barcodes. But clerks in those communities are often accountable to their voters in other ways: ballots may be delivered locally without getting sorted at central processing facilities, meaning they are less likely to be lost or delayed; and clerks can opt to manually indicate that they have received a voter’s ballot in the online database.

Although Rib Mountain is a small jurisdiction of about 4,800 eligible voters, Ruechel says ballots there will be tracked.

Another difference in November will be that those who registered and voted by mail in April already have photo IDs on file, which means they will not need to submit a new one to get a ballot. Perez recalls that in the spring, “The phones were off the hook, with people calling in and trying to figure out ‘How do I upload an ID?’ ” 

In Rib Mountain, the August primary went more smoothly than April. Just eight ballots, or less than 1% of the 822 mail-in ballots cast were rejected, Ruechel says.

Will ballots arrive on time?

Some daunting challenges remain. Numerous clerks and experts interviewed for this story say they fear voters will be disenfranchised by barriers posed by the pandemic or problems filling out or sending in ballots on time. Clerks are also concerned about the need to process mail-in ballots quickly while preserving election integrity.

Volunteer Mike Otten processes absentee ballots at the municipal center in Rib Mountain, Wis., during the partisan primary on Aug. 11, 2020. Town Clerk Joanne Ruechel sent out 1,348 absentee ballots ahead of the primary.

Notably, fraud was not a major concern among experts interviewed — although some say this election calls for a more nuanced understanding of the potential for fraud.

“Voter fraud, historically — thankfully — is (a) relatively rare problem,” says Tom Spencer, an attorney who has been involved in voter fraud cases in Florida, including Bush v. Gore.

There have been numerous documented instances in recent decades, Spencer says, but they tend to be small-scale. And when larger numbers of votes are involved in fraud, local ballot harvesting operations are typically to blame, as in Paterson, New Jersey in May.

“In a presidential election … it’s very very difficult to organize a criminal conspiracy of voter fraud that (will) change the results,” he says.

Rejections cause ‘systematic’ disenfranchisement

Mail-in ballots are much more likely to be rejected due to errors, says UW-Madison’s Burden.

In April, Wisconsin had a 1.8% rejection rate for absentee ballots — not much higher than past elections, but still enough to mean that about one in 50 votes did not count. When thousands of people who usually vote in person vote by mail instead, this can mean that thousands more votes than usual are rejected. Many voters who miss one line on a form may have their ballots thrown out without ever knowing.

“There are just a lot of vulnerabilities in that chain that don’t exist when a person’s voting in person,” he says. “The effective disenfranchisement of voters is a substantial problem that is systematic and widespread when it comes to voting by mail.”

Spencer says the Elections Commission should clearly communicate with voters that they need to follow the steps diligently to ensure their ballots are counted.

Sylvia Albert, director of voting and elections at Common Cause, frames the rejection problem this way: The bigger threat to a fair election is not fraud, but disenfranchisement.

“You have (a greater) chance of being struck by lightning,” she says, than “having your ballot improperly messed with.”

According to Albert, many more people in Wisconsin are barred from voting by requirements designed to prevent fraud — like voter ID and witness signature requirements — than would justify their use.

“From my perspective, these barriers are not about the security of the election — the election is safe and secure and free and fair. Creating these barriers is an attempt to control the electorate and only have the people that you want to vote (vote) in (the) election,” she says. Albert would prefer to see states focus instead on developing systems that maximize access to the ballot box.

“The key to the election is opportunity,” Albert says. “That means opportunity for people to register to vote, opportunity for people to cast an absentee ballot, opportunity for them to return that ballot in a timely manner, (and) opportunity for them to vote in person if they choose to.”

For voters like Medina, the opportunity to vote was curtailed in April. Wisconsin Watch found several voters who were disenfranchised — some with disabilities and others lacking witnesses addresses, causing their ballots to be rejected. Wisconsin Election Protection and the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin compiled a report in which numerous voters shared the barriers they faced in April — such as ballots that were never received, problems uploading IDs for online registration and difficulty finding a witness.

Request ballots now — and return them early

Madison, Wis., elections officials Gregory Damico and Jim Fortner, right, alphabetize returned absentee ballots by hand in the City-County Building’s ballot sorting room on Aug. 5, 2020. The ballot sorting room was one of two rooms in the building that the Madison Clerk’s Office took over during the lead up to the Aug. 11 election to handle the increase in absentee ballots.

Wisconsin law is designed to be generous to mail-in voters by allowing them to request absentee ballots until the Thursday before the election. However, experts call that timeline unrealistic.

“We have been aware for years that there is a conflict between Wisconsin statutes setting the deadline for requesting an absentee ballot the Thursday before the election and the week that (the Postal Service) says it needs to get a piece of mail from point A to point B in Wisconsin,” says Magney of the Elections Commission. “That is why we have been urging voters to act as early as possible to request absentee ballots and to return them as soon as possible.”

In a set of federal court cases currently before the Western District of Wisconsin, Judge William Conley hinted during a recent hearing that he may extend the deadline of 8 p.m. on Election Day to receive mail-in ballots. No matter what Conley decides, however, it likely will be appealed.

Elections officials say the safest route is to request absentee ballots now. Voters who wait until closer to the election can drop their ballots off at drop boxes, clerks’ offices or polling locations.

Despite recent controversial changes at the Postal Service that have slowed mail delivery, the postal agency says it is prepared to handle election mail. But it has warned states including Wisconsin with deadlines that are too close to the election that it might not be able to deliver ballots on time.

Undelivered ballots were a significant issue in Wisconsin in the spring, and one factor that contributed to Milwaukee’s long lines at the polls. Woodall-Vogg says her office is providing drop boxes with daily pickup and measures to ensure ballots are handled securely. The Milwaukee commission has also hired a communications firm to help produce and publicize informational videos about absentee voting.

“My best advice would be to request your ballot now, and mail it back as soon as possible if you are going to mail it,” says Madison’s Perez.

Advocate: More steps needed

Amber McReynolds, CEO of the nonprofit National Vote at Home Institute, says she is encouraged by the steps Wisconsin and other states have taken to build capacity in recent months. However, she has a plethora of ideas for further improvements.

These include making drop boxes available in all jurisdictions and eliminating what she calls ineffective security measures — like witness signature requirements — that create barriers to voting. Forging a witness signature would not be difficult, McReynolds says, adding, “I don’t think (witnesses) are securing the systems in the way that they think.”

Ballot tracking, by contrast, enhances security by keeping voters informed about whether their ballots have been received, she says.

McReynolds also suggests that Wisconsin adopt two simple processes to make mail-in voting even easier. The first, “drive-up drop off” is a system in which election inspectors collect and witness absentee ballots outside a polling place without asking voters to leave their cars. Madison, Milwaukee and other jurisdictions used this technique in April.

The second is “text-to-cure,” a system by which clerks can text voters whose mail-in ballots have errors and allow them to correct them by text. For example, a voter who forgot to sign the ballot envelope could deliver a signature to the clerk in this way.

“(Text-to-cure) has also been something that some states are really looking at as a good solution because it’s quick, and it’s actually pretty automated for the clerk,” McReynolds says.

Sharon Drefcinski, right, chief election inspector for the town of Rib Mountain, Wis., boxes mailed-in absentee ballots to send to the county for archiving, during the partisan primary on Aug. 11, 2020. Town Clerk Joanne Ruechel, left, sent out 1,348 absentee ballots ahead of the primary.

Burden, the UW–Madison professor, adds that states that vote entirely by mail also use more efficient processing machines that require less manual work for clerks and workers who handle ballots. Called “slicing machines,” they could be useful if there is a long-term trend toward mail-in voting in Wisconsin.

Ruechel, the Rib Mountain clerk, says lawmakers should allow clerks to process some absentee ballots before Election Day, as a stalled bill in the Legislature proposes. Votes would not be tallied before Election Day, to avoid the risk of results being leaked early, but feeding ballots through the machines in the weeks leading up to the election could lead to quicker results after polls close.

A measure that would have allowed in-person absentee ballots to be fed into machines before Election Day, the Absentee Voting Efficiency Option bill, passed the Assembly in February. But the Senate recessed before the bill was voted on, and action before November is unlikely, according to Rep. Kathy Bernier, R-Chippewa Falls.

Despite fears over COVID-19, the Postal Service’s capacity to deliver ballots on time and voters’ ability to properly fill them out, many believe November’s election will still see heavy turnout, says Kelly Michaels, the Brookfield city clerk and former president of the Wisconsin Municipal Clerks Association.

Says Michaels: “I don’t have to dust off my crystal ball too much to know it’s gonna be big.”


This project was funded by the Solutions Journalism Network. The nonprofit Wisconsin Watch (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with WPR, PBS Wisconsin, other news media and the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.  


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