‘This is a mess’: Wisconsin election officials say absentee ballot deadline extension could throw off results

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MADISON – The leader of the Wisconsin Elections Commission said a judge had created a headache Thursday by making last-minute changes to how absentee ballots will be counted. 

“This is a mess,” said Dean Knudson, the chairman of the commission.

At issue is a decision by U.S. District Judge William Conley that kept Tuesday’s election on track for those who vote in person but will allow absentee voters to return their ballots until April 13.

State law requires clerks to report unofficial returns on election night, and commissioners don’t want that to start happening on Tuesday when only a portion of ballots will have been counted. 

Wisconsin voters have requested more than 1.1 million absentee ballots.

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“The Commission wishes to avoid changing results being publicized each night during the tabulation period,” Daniel Lenz, an attorney for the commission, wrote in a Thursday-night letter to the judge. 

The commission asked that the judge clarify his order to ensure that results won’t be published until April 13, after all ballots have been returned.

The vote-tabulating issue is the latest one to tie up election officials as they try to figure out how to safely conduct an election during the coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 53,000 worldwide.

National Guard won’t be required to work polls

Also during Thursday’s late-night meeting, commission director Meagan Wolfe spelled out how the Wisconsin Army National Guard would help at the polls.

An attorney for Gov. Tony Evers wrote in a friend-of-the-court brief this week that the governor “agreed to use members of the Wisconsin Army National Guard to assist as poll workers.” But the Guard is simply asking members to volunteer at the polls while off duty, Wolfe said, adding she hasn’t been told how many members will be available. 

Communities are facing a severe shortage of poll workers, with more than 100 municipalities saying they will have no poll workers at all.

Appeal filed by Republicans

In his ruling, Conley did not require that absentee ballots be postmarked by election day. That means voters who have received absentee ballots could fill them out and return them days after voting would normally conclude. 

Election observers have raised concerns that reporting returns starting Tuesday would affect the behavior of those who requested ballots but hadn’t cast them by election day. It could also lead to pressure on voters who hadn’t returned their ballots from campaigns and parties if they see that some races were tight.

Conley allowed absentee ballots to be returned after Tuesday because tens of thousands of voters likely won’t receive them until after election day. He determined that if they requested their ballots on time, they should be able to cast them.

Shortly after he issued his order, the state and national arms of the Republican Party filed an appeal seeking to block the bulk of Conley’s ruling.

“The court’s last-minute injunction substantially interferes with the integrity of Wisconsin’s election, grants relief that no plaintiff requested, changes the rules for completing absentee ballots in the middle of an election, creates voter confusion, and plainly conflicts with binding precedent,” wrote attorney Patrick Strawbridge.

Extra day to request absentee ballots

Under state law, Thursday was the last day to request an absentee ballot, but Conley extended the deadline one day, to 5 p.m. Friday.

Wolfe said voters could request absentee ballots Friday in person, by email or by fax. They can also use the state’s online portal, myvote.wi.gov. Because of a technical issue the only way to request a ballot on Friday for Tuesday’s election will be to request absentee ballots for all elections in 2020, she said.

Conley concluded that the day for in-person voting likely should be moved, but found doing that was up to the Democratic governor and the Republican-led Legislature.

In his ruling and in comments at a Wednesday hearing, Conley suggested they were ignoring their duties to protect the public.

Also in his order, Conley loosened the requirement that those voting absentee have a witness sign a certificate. He ruled that voters could get around that requirement if they provided a statement with their absentee ballot saying they could not safely obtain a witness’ signature despite reasonable efforts to do so.

In Thursday’s letter, the commission asked the judge to clarify whether voters who have already returned absentee ballots without witness’ signatures could have their votes counted if they provided follow-up letters saying they couldn’t get a witness.

Because of the poll worker shortage, municipalities are greatly reducing the number of polling locations they will have. Milwaukee, for instance, will likely have fewer than a dozen polling stations instead of the usual 180. 

Conley issued his decision in response to three legal challenges from Souls to the Polls, the Democratic National Committee, League of Women Voters of Wisconsin and other groups.

Contact Patrick Marley at patrick.marley@jrn.com. Follow him on Twitter at @patrickdmarley.

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