MADISON – The U.S. Postal Service has identified hundreds of absentee ballots for the April election that never made it to voters or couldn’t be counted because of postmark problems, a new report says.
The post office’s internal watchdog chalked the problems up to receiving outgoing absentee ballots at the last moment from election officials, inconsistent postmarking of ballots and one mail carrier’s inattention to getting absentee ballots to voters in Fox Point.
The 17-page report by the postal service’s inspector general accounts for some but not all of the problems that marred voting for the April election for state Supreme Court. Nearly 1 million people turned to mail voting because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The report offers a cautionary tale for Wisconsin and other states as election officials brace for record-shattering absentee ballot requests this fall.
Clerks and voters across Wisconsin reported a host of problems, and the inspector general’s report touches on four of them.
Fox Valley ballots didn’t get to voters on time
Three mail tubs containing 749 ballots from the Fox Valley didn’t get to voters in time for them to cast them.
Appleton officials had given the absentee ballots to a third-party mail vendor on April 6, the day before the election, according to the report. The mail vendor provided them to the post office about 6 p.m. on election day.
That meant the absentee ballots couldn’t be delivered to voters until after election day — too late to be filled out, returned and counted. (Completed absentee ballots had to be postmarked by election day and received by clerks by April 13.)
The state Elections Commission has identified about 1,600 absentee ballots that didn’t get to voters from the Fox Valley, and the report did not say why it focused on a smaller number of ballots.
Carrier misdelivers ballots in Fox Point
In Fox Point, a mail carrier erroneously delivered about 160 absentee ballots meant for voters to the village’s election office. The carrier “admitted to not reviewing each ballot to confirm the destination address before returning them to the Fox Point (election office),” the report noted.
Problems persisted after that.
The village manager visited the post office multiple times to find out why the problem kept recurring but could not get an answer. The post office failed to log the mail according to postal service policy, which could have identified the problem before the election, the report said.
The report raised concerns about how the village had designed its address labels. The words “Village of Fox Point” appeared above the name of the intended recipients, which may have contributed to problems with getting the ballots to the right places, the report said. In addition, a row of numbers on the labels may have caused postal sorting machinery to misinterpret where the mail was supposed to go.
Postmark problems in Milwaukee
About 390 absentee ballots that were returned by Milwaukee voters didn’t include postmarks or had ones that were illegible or that lacked a date. The post office was able to work with election officials to validate all but about 40 of those postmarks after election day, the report said.
Undelivered ballots in Milwaukee
A large number of voters who requested absentee ballots on March 22 and March 23 reported they never received their absentee ballots. The postal service couldn’t determine how the mailing of ballots on those days was handled because they were not sent in envelopes with intelligent barcodes that make tracking easier.
But officials now believe the problem with absentee ballots requested on those days stems from a computer glitch with the system that prepares and prints absentee ballot mailing labels. That system is run by the state, not the postal service.
Election officials say they have put in place safeguards to ensure that glitch does not occur again.
Contact Patrick Marley at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @patrickdmarley.