Courts may have to get involved to address Outagamie County ballot misprint

MADISON – The state Elections Commission told Outagamie County officials Tuesday they would need to go to a judge to find a way to deal with thousands of ballots that can’t be read by counting machines because of a printing error.

While the commissioners said it would be up to a judge to decide, they contended the best solution would be to have poll workers make changes to marks on the edges of the ballots so they can be read by tabulators. That would be more efficient than having poll workers fill out new ballots to replace those that have printing errors, they said. 

It will be up to the county or others to decide whether to take the matter to court. Otherwise, election officials will have to remake thousands of ballots or count all their ballots by hand. 

Whatever path they take, counting ballots in Outagamie County and a small portion of Calumet County will take longer because of the printing mistake. That means results may not be available until after the Nov. 3 election. 

Outagamie County has estimated the printing problem affected 24,600 ballots, though some of those never made it to voters.

The problem is a misprinted “timing mark” on the edge of the ballots that the tabulators need to read them.

One way to address the problem would be for election officials to darken the timing marks with black ink so the ballots could be read by the machines. That would be less time consuming than counting ballots by hand or remaking the ballots with the errors. That option would also reduce the chance of errors.

State law doesn’t allow making changes to the timing marks, so that’s why a judge would have to sign off on such a plan. 

The Elections Commission, which consists of three Republicans and three Democrats, was united in its recommendation Tuesday about the best way to deal with the issue.

An example of a misprint affecting thousands of absentee ballots in Outagamie County.

Outagamie County officials last week asked the commission if they could count the faulty ballots by hand and the other ones by machine. But the commission maintains under state law they don’t have a “mix and match” option — they must count all the ballots the same way.

If the county goes to court, it could ask a judge allow it to count the faulty ballots differently than the other ones.

County officials did not immediately say Tuesday whether they wanted to go to court to address the problem.

Chris Mueller of the USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin contributed to this report.

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