Wisconsin likely won’t have presidential results on election night

MADISON – Wisconsin likely won’t have results in the presidential race on election night and municipal clerks say that’s largely because state lawmakers won’t let them get a head start on counting an expected flood of absentee ballots. 

Clerks from both parties for years have pushed for a change in state law that would allow them to start counting at least some absentee ballots before Election Day. They see the issue especially pressing now that voters are turning to absentee voting in unprecedented numbers because of the coronavirus pandemic. 

“We’re going to get all of these absentee ballots. However, we still only have 13 hours to process them,” Brookfield Clerk Kelly Michaels said Wednesday at a forum hosted by Marquette University. “And I think that’s where we’re going to fall down a little bit and we’re going to learn some lessons because other states have more time to process all of those absentee ballots.”

Linda Golembiewski places an address label on an absentee ballot envelope at the clerk's office at Wauwatosa City Hall.

Related:Milwaukee gears up for historic election in which up to 70% of voters may not cast a ballot at polls on Nov. 3

Related:How to request a ballot, what’s the deadline to register and answers to other questions about voting absentee in Wisconsin

Clerks can begin counting absentee ballots starting at 7 a.m. on Nov. 3, when polls open for in-person voting. Polls close at 8 p.m., but Milwaukee and some other cities likely won’t be finished counting absentee ballots by then. 

“We are not anticipating that we will be done and have results right at 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. but I’m hopeful that by the time the sun comes up on Nov. 4th we will be finished and have election results,” Claire Woodall-Vogg, the executive director of the Milwaukee Election Commission, said during the forum. 

Without Milwaukee’s full results, it likely won’t be known whether Republican President Donald Trump or Democrat Joe Biden won the state. Trump won Wisconsin in 2016 by less than a percentage point. 

“Time is something that the Legislature doesn’t ever seem to want to give us, at least not this year, so it will definitely be a struggle,” Woodall-Vogg said.

“We’ll be doing our best to communicate to voters why there’s a delay and that a delay does not mean any cause for concern or invalidate the entirety of the election results whatsoever on election night.”

Clerks will mail more than a million absentee ballots by Thursday to voters who have requested them — far more than typical elections. Requests for absentee ballots are expected to continue to rise over the coming weeks.

Wisconsin lawmakers have debated the issue but haven’t adopted changes to state law. The Assembly in 2019 approved a bill that would allow some in-person votes that were cast early to be counted sooner, which would cut down on the overall number of ballots that have to be counted on Election Day.

That bill died when the Senate failed to act on it. A Senate committee took testimony in January on a bill that would allow local governments to count absentee ballots before Election Day if they wanted.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, backed the bill the Assembly passed, Vos spokeswoman Kit Beyer noted. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, didn’t say through a spokesman why the Senate did not take up legislation on the issue.

Election officials and academics have warned that results from around the country could take days or weeks to compute this fall, especially if the election is close. They have raised concerns that voters may question the results after growing used to getting them relatively quickly in past elections.

The situation is especially perilous because of suspicions about voting processes from both parties.

Trump has made baseless allegations about rigged elections and recently encouraged supporters in North Carolina to vote twice, which would be a crime, to test election security systems. Democrats have said they fear a slowdown of mail could prevent some absentee ballots from being cast.

With partisan feelings high, the state is training clerks on how to de-escalate situations, said Meagan Wolfe, the director of the state Elections Commission. 

“We need to think about things like de-escalation training for voters, for observers and just for some of the situations that might arise,” Wolfe said at Wednesday’s forum. 

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