Thousands of absentee ballots in Wisconsin weren’t counted because of mailing problems and tech glitches

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MADISON – Nearly 2,700 absentee ballots in Milwaukee were not sent and about 1,600 in the Fox Valley were not processed because of computer glitches and mailing problems, according to the most comprehensive account yet of what went wrong in the April 7 election.

In Milwaukee, 2,693 voters were not sent absentee ballots after technical issues marred their production on March 22 and March 23, according to a report by the Wisconsin Elections Commission.

About half of those people eventually voted, either with replacement absentee ballots or at the polls. The others did not vote.

The election for a seat on the state Supreme Court put a global spotlight on Wisconsin for holding an election in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. The report highlights the kind of difficulties Wisconsin and other states could face in the November presidential election.

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A separate problem emerged when about 1,600 ballots for the Appleton and Oshkosh areas were located at a mail processing center the day after the election. It was not clear in the report if the ballots were on their way to voters or on their way back to clerks when they were found. Either way, they were discovered too late to be counted.

The U.S. Postal Service has answered few questions about the situation, according to the report.

As officials urged people to stay at home as much as possible to avoid the spread of the coronavirus, Wisconsinites turned to absentee voting in unprecedented numbers. Often, clerks could not keep up with demand, the report notes.

The state could face even larger difficulties in the August primary and November general election. More than 3 million Wisconsinites are expected to vote in the presidential election, twice as many as did in April. That could mean 1.8 million voters requesting mail-in ballots — compared to the record 964,000 cast by mail in April.

“This kind of volume would present terrific challenges for Wisconsin election officials at all levels,” the report says.

To make voting more accessible this fall, the commission is considering mailing absentee ballot request forms to all registered voters — an idea embraced by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.

The commission, which consists of three Democrats and three Republicans, will meet Wednesday to discuss the report and could debate whether to mail absentee request forms to all voters.

The commission is contending with numerous lawsuits, including one filed Monday that seeks to have absentee ballot forms sent to all registered voters. The lawsuits are seeking numerous other changes, including loosening the witness and photo ID requirements for absentee voting. 

Computer issue hits Milwaukee

The technical problems in Milwaukee occurred late on March 22 and carried into early March 23, when the Milwaukee officials attempted to print thousands of mailing labels for absentee ballots. The problem occurred because of “an extraordinary confluence of events” with technology, according to the report.

Milwaukee election workers processed an unusually large number of ballot requests at once, which took computers hours to generate instead of a few minutes, as is more typical, according to the report. At the same time, state tech workers — unaware of what Milwaukee workers were doing — restarted their servers to address an unrelated issue.

When the system restarted, it began processing a new set of Milwaukee ballots instead of picking up where it had left off. That resulted in the failure to fulfill 2,693 absentee ballot requests, according to the report.

Restarting the servers did not affect sending ballots in other parts of the state, according to the report.

Mail problems in the Fox Valley

The day after the election, the Elections Commission received a call from an election mail coordinator in the Chicago office of the U.S. Postal Service who said three tubs of absentee ballots for the Appleton and Oshkosh area had been found. Later, the postal service said the tubs contained about 1,600 ballots.

The problem has previously been disclosed, but the report for the first time says how many ballots were discovered.

The Elections Commission has been unable to find out more about the situation.

According to the report, a large number of absentee ballots generated for voters in Oshkosh on March 24 were never returned. The report concludes those ballots faced mailing problems or mailing labels were never applied to the ballot envelopes.

Fox Point mystery persists

In another issue that has been previously reported, the post office repeatedly returned absentee ballots to Fox Point Village Hall that had never been delivered to voters. The report could not determine how many ballots were affected, but noted 150 or more undelivered ballots were returned to the village on election day.

Election and village officials say the postal service has given no explanation for what happened.

Fall elections loom

State election officials are mulling what to do to avoid such problems in the fall.

One idea is to create intelligent barcodes that would be applied to ballot envelopes. These barcodes would provide tracking updates as frequently as once an hour and voters could see the status of their absentee ballots online.

The near-real time tracking would presumably reduce the number of calls and emails to clerks, freeing up their time.

The Elections Commission is also working on establishing procedures that will allow it to prevent the computer glitches that occurred for the Milwaukee ballots, the report says.

The commission is redesigning its absentee ballot request form and making updates to its online portal to make them more user friendly. Voters can request absentee ballots online at myvote.wi.gov.

The Elections Commission has received $7.3 million in federal aid to help it conduct elections in the coronavirus era. Evers this week urged the commission to use some of that money to send absentee ballot request forms to all voters.

He also wants the funds to go to local governments to cover the costs of cleaning supplies, hand sanitizer and protective equipment. 

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

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