MADISON – City clerks around the state have prepared hundreds of thousands of absentee ballot envelopes but are waiting to send them while the state Supreme Court decides whether to reprint 2.3 million ballots so the Green Party’s presidential ticket can be added to them.
As the court works on the case, the clerks run the risk of missing a Sept. 17 deadline to mail more than 1 million absentee ballots voters have already requested.
Election officials told the court late Thursday that as many as 378,000 absentee ballots may have already been sent. A check by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel found many clerks had printed labels and readied envelopes for their mass mailings but had not yet put them in the mail.
Among the communities that have prepared ballot envelopes but not sent them yet are Madison (77,000), Milwaukee (27,000), Green Bay (17,000), Kenosha (16,000), Janesville (11,000), Oshkosh (10,000), New Berlin (8,600), Franklin (8,000), Sheboygan (6,000) Muskego (5,000) and Shorewood (1,000).
The Journal Sentinel so far has not identified any communities that have mailed ballots yet.
“Our ballots were delivered to us yesterday morning, so while we had started stuffing our already labeled envelopes, we stopped as soon as word from (the elections commission) came down,” Elena Hilby, Sun Prairie clerk, said by email. “So none have actually been mailed … We have prepared the mailing up to the point of putting in the ballot, so that is all we have left to do as soon as we have direction.”
The state’s elections software identifies ballots as having been “sent” as soon as a mailing label is printed. That has prevented election officials from being able to tell the court for certain whether or how many ballots have been put in the mail.
The issue is important because adding names to the ballots will be greatly complicated if some voters have already been sent ballots. Those voters would need to be identified and sent a second ballot, and clerks would then have to ensure that no more than one ballot is counted from those voters.
But clerks are warning the Supreme Court case could cause serious problems even if no ballots have been sent yet. Adding candidates to ballots now will cause severe delays because more than 2.3 million ballots will have to be reprinted.
A small number of vendors are able to print ballots and they are already loaded up with orders from clerks across the country.
In Waukesha, election officials began preparing ballots on Sept. 8 but none have been mailed.
“The lateness of the court filings and decisions will definitely slow the mailing process, the opposite of what all Wisconsin clerks have been working to complete as early as possible with voter concerns on returning ballots in time,” said Gina Kozlik, Waukesha city treasurer.
Oconomowoc City Clerk Diane Coenen said the uncertainty regarding ballots makes her nervous, especially after the challenges clerks faced in April with a string of changes in the days leading up to the election.
She said that she likely won’t be comfortable with mailing ballots until there’s a decision from the state Supreme Court because having to start from the beginning to mail a new set of ballots won’t just cost money, it will cost time for employees and volunteers, as well.
“It’s not an easy position,” she said.
Wisconsin law requires absentee ballots to be sent to those who have requested them by Sept. 17. A separate federal law requires them to be mailed to military and overseas voters by Sept. 19.
Mail voting is expected to hit a record this fall because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Voters can request absentee ballots up until just before the Nov. 3 election, but clerks are advising the public to order them as soon as they’re able to make sure they can return them in time to be counted.
The Green Party president nominee Howie Hawkins and vice-presidential nominee Angela Walker last week asked the Supreme Court to put them on the ballot after the Elections Commission didn’t do so.
The commission deadlocked last month on the issue. Walker, a Milwaukee native, provided two different addresses on her campaign filings, and the three Democrats on the commission said that should keep the Green Party off the ballot. The commission’s three Republicans wanted the Green Party on the ballot.
Unspoken at last month’s commission meeting was how the Green Party could affect the presidential election. Democrats fear the liberal party could take votes away from Democratic nominee Joe Biden and Republicans hope such a situation will help GOP President Donald Trump.
Trump won Wisconsin four years ago by less than 1 percentage point. The Green Party candidate in 2016, Jill Stein, received more votes than Trump’s margin of victory.
The state Supreme Court in a 4-3 order Thursday said no ballots should be mailed while it considers whether to take the case. The court’s conservatives were in the majority and its liberals were in dissent.
Molly Beck and Laura Schulte of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel contributed to this report.
Contact Patrick Marley at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @patrickdmarley.