As predicted, Wisconsin’s election results not fully reported on Election Day due to surge in absentee ballots

MADISON – Ballot counting in Wisconsin had mostly wrapped up by late Wednesday morning — longer than usual, but faster than some other states that continued to tally their presidential results.

The results showing a narrow win for Democrat Joe Biden took longer to tabulate because so many absentee ballots were cast this year. 

State law requires initial results to be tallied by 4 p.m. on Wednesday, and all but one tiny town had completed their work before then, according to the state Elections Commission. Only Willow in Richland County remained to complete its results.

Results:Statewide results, county breakdowns and more

More:Wisconsin election results likely won’t be known before Wednesday 

Live blog:Updates from around the state

Full coverage:Wisconsin election section

To understand the counting delays this year, look no further than Outagamie and Calumet counties. There, poll workers had to fill out thousands of replacement ballots because of a printing error.

That meant hundreds of hours of extra work for election officials collectively in 25 municipalities.

The result of an election isn’t known until all ballots are counted

More than ever, election officials emphasized this fall that the results aren’t known until well after initial tallies begin to pop up on websites. 

“Election night results are never, ever, ever official,” said Meagan Wolfe, the administrator of the Elections Commission. 

“Our number one job is to make sure that we have an accurate election, an accurate tally. And so they’re not going to speed up the process to try to meet some artificial deadline. They’re not going to speed up the process because people are anxious to get those unofficial results or declarations.”

Why the delay? Absentee ballots take longer to count

As in much of the rest of the country, counting votes in Wisconsin took longer than usual because the coronavirus pandemic caused far more people to vote absentee.

As of Monday, nearly 1.9 million absentee ballots had been cast in Wisconsin, far surpassing previous records. That includes more than 1.2 million mail ballots and just under 650,000 in-person early votes, which count as a form of absentee voting. 

More:The early vote in Wisconsin keeps climbing. But we’ll have to wait until election day to know what that means

To count the absentee ballots, poll workers had to announce who cast each ballot, check his or her name off a poll list, open the ballot envelope, unfold the ballot and feed it into a tabulator. If the machine couldn’t tally the ballot because of the way it was folded or some other reason, poll workers had to try to fix the error.

That process took much longer than tallying votes that are cast at the polls. In most Wisconsin jurisdictions, those voters individually feed their own ballots into the tabulators.

More:Here’s what happens to your absentee ballot after you send it in and before it’s counted on Election Day

Where a ballot is counted can affect when it’s included in results

Local officials decide where they count their absentee ballots. In most communities, absentee ballots are distributed to the polling sites that voters would have used if they had voted in person on Election Day.

Throughout the day, poll workers open the absentee ballots and feed them into the counting machines. Those precincts will report their totals once all the ballots — both the absentee ballots and the in-person ones cast that day — have been counted.

Thirty-nine communities in 14 counties tally their absentee ballots in central-count locations. At those sites, poll workers spend Election Day loading absentee ballots into counting machines. As of Monday, the total number of absentee ballots from those 39 communities was more than 560,000. Of that, roughly 164,000 were from the City of Milwaukee.

The central count locations include Milwaukee and several suburbs, such as Brookfield, Franklin, Menomonee Falls, New Berlin and Wauwatosa.

Among the others are a number of mid-size cities, such as Beloit, Green Bay, Janesville, Superior and Wausau.

The communities that use central-count facilities didn’t finish tallying absentee ballots by the time the polls closed. Milwaukee officials, for example, completed their work around 4 a.m. Wednesday.

The central-count communities include both red and blue parts of the state. In 2016, they accounted for 780,000 votes, including both the Election Day votes and the absentee votes. That amounts to 26% of the state’s vote total that year.

Together, those communities voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton by 17 points, but that’s because Milwaukee voted so heavily for her. The other 38 communities were narrowly carried by Trump.

Some early results included Election Day voting, but not absentee ballots

On election night, results in central-count communities were reported showing how many votes were cast at each precinct — but initially those results showed only the votes cast there in person on Election Day.

Hours later, in many cases, the absentee ballots for each of those precincts were added to the totals.

Soon after the polls closed, the communities that use central-count facilities reported how many total absentee ballots they have. They have been advised by state election officials to include a notification on their websites that the results weren’t complete because the absentee votes were still being tallied.

That was meant to help the public understand that the first sets of results they saw didn’t offer anything close to the complete picture.

“There’s no sort of one-size-fits-all (answer) as to how that reporting is going to look,” Wolfe said.

Ballot issues in northeastern Wisconsin will cause further delays

The issue in Outagamie and Calumet counties is unique. Thousands of absentee ballots were sent to voters in those counties that included a misprint on the “timing marks” along the edges of the ballots. The marks are used by tabulators to count the ballots, and the tabulators can’t recognize the ones with the misprints.

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

In those areas, clerks had to remake as many as 9,000 misprinted ballots. Under that process, poll workers copied a voter’s choices onto a replacement ballot that was then fed into the tabulator. That caused delays, but poll workers were able to manage the situation with the assistance of National Guard members, Wolfe said.

Ahead of time, some raised concerns that errors could be made as poll workers transcribed votes.

The problem could have been addressed much more efficiently if poll workers were allowed to fill in the timing marks with black ink, which would have made them readable by the counting machines. But state law doesn’t allow the poll workers to alter the timing marks, and the state Supreme Court on Thursday declined to consider a request for help from county officials.

Craig Gilbert of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.

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