If you want to know who wins the April 7 races for Milwaukee mayor and Milwaukee County executive, don’t bother staying up late on election night.
Results will take days to tabulate because of a surge in absentee ballots caused by the coronavirus outbreak, city officials are warning.
The delays in Wisconsin’s largest city very well could mean it will also remain unclear for days who won the state’s Democratic presidential primary and a 10-year term on the state Supreme Court.
“Given practical constraints around large group gatherings and coronavirus precautions, this process (of counting absentee ballots) could take several days to complete,” Deputy City Attorney Adam Stephens wrote in a Friday court filing.
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At the time, the city expected to receive as many as 75,000 absentee ballots. But by Monday, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett estimated the city would receive far more than that — up to 130,000 or more than twice as many as it received in the 2016 presidential primary.
The issue for the city is twofold. State law doesn’t allow the city to start feeding ballots through voting tabulators until election day. Meanwhile, the city is facing a severe shortage of poll workers, many of whom are bowing out because they don’t want to risk getting exposed to the virus that has sidelined many of the world’s economies.
Counting absentee ballots is time consuming because poll workers have to ensure ballot envelopes have been signed by voters and witnesses, and they have to remake any ballots that are torn or otherwise damaged.
Lawyers for Milwaukee and Madison spelled out their concerns in a friend-of-the-court brief that also sought to allow clerks to accept absentee ballots that arrive after election day. The filing was made in a lawsuit brought by the Democratic National Committee that seeks to extend absentee voting because of the health emergency that has prompted Democratic Gov. Tony Evers to prepare an order requiring people to stay at home for all but essential needs.
Evers so far has not designated polling sites as places that can remain open under his order, but he said Tuesday he is talking to local officials and the Wisconsin Elections Commission about how to conduct the election safely.
“That conversation is ongoing,” he told reporters in a call-in news conference.
Clerks around the state have been slammed with requests for absentee ballots. As of Tuesday, more than 550,000 voters had requested absentee ballots — more than twice as many as were cast in the 2016 presidential primary.
Clerks have urged people to request ballots at myvote.wi.gov as early as possible to prevent a last-minute backlog. They have been running low on envelopes to provide absentee ballots but expect more soon.
Barrett seeks all-mail election
Barrett — who faces a challenge from Democratic state Sen. Lena Taylor — sent a letter Monday to state leaders asking them to conduct the election by mail only, which could cause it to be delayed.
“Having monitored the situation we are experiencing in Milwaukee, I now believe that neither in-person absentee voting nor in-person voting on April 7 is feasible or safe for our workers or residents,” Barrett wrote to Evers and the state’s top GOP legislative leaders, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald of Juneau and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos of Rochester.
The city’s Election Commission couldn’t keep sufficient staffing to operate its early voting sites and it has become more challenging after city and state orders that residents stay in their homes, he wrote.
He wrote that the Milwaukee Election Commission has had to relocate 15 voting sites and has to “address” another 10, in addition to getting the necessary cleaning supplies to operate the sites in the midst of a statewide shortage on such supplies.
“Under the present circumstances, in-person voting, particularly with lines of people, is simply not safe, feasible or responsible,” he wrote. “In good conscience, I would not ask one of my loved ones to sit in a room for hours greeting dozens of people during this pandemic. I can’t expect citizens of my city to do that either.”
He asked that state leaders waive the voter identification law, saying it’s confusing and challenging for voters to have to upload an ID to request an absentee ballot and that many don’t have internet access to do so. He also asked that changes be made to the witness requirement on absentee ballots since people aren’t supposed to be moving about.
Neil Albrecht, executive director of the Milwaukee Election Commission, said establishing a mail-only system could require delaying the election 30 to 60 days.
Evers did not say Tuesday if he would try to establish a mail-only election.
Vos and Fitzgerald did not answer questions about what they thought of Barrett’s letter, but Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke said he opposed making changes to voting rules just before the election.
“I don’t see how you can rationally make changes two weeks out before an election,” the Kaukauna Republican said.
He argued Evers didn’t have the power to changing voting rules, underscoring a claim he made on Twitter that doing so would create a “constitutional crisis.”
“The danger of the precedent of politicians moving an election (just before the election) is far worse than whatever could happen on election day,” he said in the interview.
Experts on election law have differed over whether Evers can change voting rules during a health emergency.
Like Evers, Steineke urged people to vote absentee.
Mary Spicuzza of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.
Contact Patrick Marley at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @patrickdmarley.
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