Election workers will have to pull all-nighters to count Wisconsin ballots

A woman fills out her ballot inside the Washington Park Library in Milwaukee during early voting on Tuesday.

MADISON – Wisconsin election officials might want to bring a Thermos of coffee with them on Election Day.  

Counting ballots is expected to take much longer than usual this fall because so many voters are casting absentee ballots. State law doesn’t allow local officials to stop their count and reconvene the next morning, so many of them will have to pull an all-nighter.

The state Elections Commission issued guidance Tuesday to local officials noting they have little wiggle room on how they tally votes.

Like most states, Wisconsin’s election laws don’t account for events like the coronavirus pandemic, which already has upended the way elections are run. Municipal clerks and poll workers will have to find ways to follow those laws while dealing with the unique circumstances the pandemic has brought.

Officials can’t pause ballot counting

Once the count starts on election night, it can’t stop until it’s complete, according to state law. The guidance from the bipartisan commission says officials should plan to stay up through the night to complete their work, but notes that might not be possible in some cases.

“It may be inevitable that some election officials will need to reconvene the following day to complete the process as a result of unforeseen circumstances,” Meagan Wolfe, the commission’s administrator, wrote in a memo explaining the guidance.

Counting will take so much longer because many more ballots than usual will be cast by mail. Before the pandemic, about 6% of Wisconsin voters voted by mail. This time, officials expect 60% to 80% of voters will cast ballots that way.

Absentee ballots take longer to count because officials on Election Day must take them out of their envelopes, unfold them and feed them into counting machines. They also have to address errors as they occur, such as when ballots can’t be read by the machines because of the way they were folded.

Initial results will be incomplete

Most municipalities in Wisconsin count their absentee ballots at polling places on Election Day, but Milwaukee and 38 other communities count their absentee ballots in a central location.

In those communities, initial results from a precinct won’t include the absentee vote totals. That could leave the public with the impression that all the votes from that precinct have been counted even though they haven’t been.

“If counties wish to post unofficial election night results in this manner it will be essential that their results web page clearly indicates when results for a reporting unit are incomplete and awaiting absentee totals,” Wolfe wrote.

‘100%’ doesn’t always mean 100%

Spreading the word that results are incomplete may be difficult. Some communities use software that automatically generates reports that say 100% of a precinct’s results are in even though they don’t include the precinct’s absentee votes, according to the memo.

“In a perfect world where polling place results and central count results come in within a narrow window of time, this is not an issue. However, that is not always the case, and may become an issue this November,” Wolfe wrote.

The deadline for drop boxes must be before 8 p.m. on Election Day

With an increase in absentee voting, Milwaukee and many other communities have established drop boxes where voters can turn in their ballots.

Wolfe’s memo notes state law requires absentee ballots to be at a voting precinct or election office by the time polls close. That means the last pickup from the drop boxes will have to be early enough that they can get there by 8 p.m., when polls close.

Counties can get up to $10,000 each

Wisconsin received $7.2 million in federal aid this year to deal with the added costs of running elections during the pandemic. Much of that went toward cleaning supplies, equipment, increased mailing costs and sending absentee ballot request forms to virtually all registered voters. 

About $750,000 has yet to be spent. The commission considered using it for digital ads to educate the public about election security and voting by mail, but Republicans rejected the idea because they saw it as a waste of money. 

Instead, the commission decided it would make $10,000 available to each of the state’s 72 counties they could use to help cover election costs.

Alison Dirr of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.

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