Attention turned to missing absentee ballots Wednesday as state officials reported three tubs of them were discovered in a mail processing center and the Milwaukee Election Commission called for an investigation into a separate set of undelivered ballots.
And Fox Point officials said 100 or more ballots a day were returned to the village as undelivered in the week leading up to the election.
The discoveries emerged as would-be voters across the state expressed a host of frustrations about trying to obtain absentee ballots so they could avoid going to the polls during the coronavirus pandemic. Many have said ballots they requested long ago did not arrive by Tuesday, the deadline for getting their ballots postmarked.
“I learned today that the (Wisconsin Elections Commission) received a call from a postal service worker informing them 3 large tubs of absentee ballots from Oshkosh and Appleton, were just located,” Republican Sen. Dan Feyen of Fond du Lac said on Twitter.
Meagan Wolfe, the administrator of the Elections Commission, said she had been talking to the U.S. Postal Service about the situation but so far has not determined whether the ballots had been on their way to voters or already filled out and on their way back to clerks.
“We don’t have answers on that at this point,” Wolfe said during an online media briefing.
Representatives for the Postal Service did not immediately respond Wednesday to questions about undelivered absentee ballots.
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Feyen wants the state commission to go to court to give absentee voters in his area a chance to have their ballots counted, according to his office.
Getting such a ruling will be exceedingly difficult because the U.S. Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision Monday ruled absentee ballots must be in the hands of clerks by election day or postmarked by then to be counted.
Republicans sought that decision by the Supreme Court and Feyen this week called it correct. But he also said he believed the situation in his area was unique and those voters should be given accommodations that others aren’t getting.
Wolfe said the state commission would likely meet this week to address election issues but suggested voters who didn’t receive their absentee ballots were out of luck under the Supreme Court ruling.
“There really isn’t any additional things for this election that a voter could do if their ballot didn’t make it by the deadline,” she said.
Voters across the state who did not receive their absentee ballots had the option of voting in person Tuesday — an act some voters were reluctant to take because of the global pandemic.
No details have been made available about how many voters who didn’t get absentee ballots ended up voting in person instead.
Voters in Appleton and Oshkosh weren’t the only ones registering complaints about trouble getting absentee ballots.
For instance, Milwaukee officials have received numerous calls from voters whose ballots had been issued on March 22 and 23 but never reached them.
The Milwaukee Election Commission will seek a formal Postal Service investigation into what happened to absentee ballots that did not reach city voters, said the commission’s director, Neil Albrecht.
“The pattern that we saw in terms of a volume of voters — and I can’t give an exact percentage — calling in and saying that they had not received their ballots really drew our attention to those two days,” Albrecht said during a virtual news conference.
When the city learned of the issue with ballots not being delivered to voters, officials immediately began reissuing ballots to voters who had made a request over that period but had not received their ballots, he said.
Fox Point problems
In Fox Point, the village received anywhere from 20 to 50 undelivered absentee ballots per day for about a week. In the week leading up to the election, that figure increased to 100 to 150 ballots per day, Village Manager Scott Botcher said.
On the morning of election day, Fox Point Village Hall received a plastic mail bin with 175 ballots that never went out in the mail, including a number of Glendale ballots.
The ballots are unopened and unmarked. They don’t have a “return to sender” stamp or any type of explanation attached to them, Botcher said.
Every time they received a batch of absentee ballots, village officials immediately drove the ballots back to the nearest post office, at 5651 N. Lydell Ave. They asked post office supervisors what was wrong with the ballots, but they did not receive any explanation.
“We’re not sure why this happened,” Botcher said. “Nobody seems to be able to tell me why.”
Fox Point Village Clerk Kelly Meyer said it’s unclear how many voters were affected by the undelivered ballots.
Fox Point received 2,877 absentee ballot requests, all of which were fulfilled within 24 hours of receipt, she said.
Congresswoman Gwen Moore’s office has contacted the U.S. Postal Service to investigate the incident.
Postmarks and misdelivered ballots
As clerks processed absentee ballots Wednesday, they found a new issue to consider — envelopes that don’t have postmarks.
Postmarks aren’t used on a majority of absentee ballots from municipalities that use postage meters, according to Albrecht.
He said he anticipated the postmark issue would become particularly problematic for ballots received Wednesday that were clearly sent by the deadline but that don’t have a postmark.
He said he wasn’t sure whether those ballots would be counted or if the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling would be interpreted literally to disqualify ballots that don’t have postmarks on them.
In Madison, Deputy Clerk Jim Verbick said about 800 absentee ballots were received on Wednesday, but they hadn’t yet been checked for witness signatures, addresses or postmarks yet. He said that he anticipates receiving an even higher volume over the coming days as ballots make their way back.
Some voters returned absentee ballots meant for other municipalities — some as far away as Milwaukee — in Madison’s drop boxes on Tuesday. There wasn’t enough time to get some of those ballots into the mail to be postmarked in time.
To try to save the ballots, Madison workers used the city’s date stamps on the ballots and the city has been encouraging other municipalities that received Madison ballots to do the same, Verbick said.
Jeff Rumage and Laura Schulte 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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