In an election decided in Wisconsin by about 20,000 votes, President Donald Trump wants to throw out more than 200,000 ballots.
The Trump campaign is seeking to disqualify 238,420 ballots cast during the Nov. 3 election between Dane and Milwaukee counties, according to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel analysis — an effort that has been unsuccessful so far as part of recounts in both counties but could end up in court.
Milwaukee County’s recount concluded Friday, with Democrat Joe Biden increasing his net margin of victory over Trump by 132 votes out of nearly 460,000 cast. The Dane County recount is expected to conclude Sunday.
The ballots Trump is seeking to disqualify affect voters who cast absentee ballots in person, known as early voting, and residents who identify themselves as “indefinitely confined,” allowing them to vote absentee without meeting the state photo ID requirements.
The Trump campaign argues voters who cast absentee ballots in person should be disqualified because the ballots did not include separate applications and that many more people claimed to be indefinitely confined than exist.
Now, the affected voters face losing their voice in the election after following state guidance that was promoted widely, including by the president who at an Oct. 17 rally in Janesville told the crowd “early voting begins on Tuesday so get out and vote.”
“I think they’re trying to take our votes away,” said Mose Fuller, a pastor at St. Timothy Community Baptist Church on Milwaukee’s north side. “I personally think they are destroying the whole concept of what democracy is all about. It’s an unpatriotic and un-American thing that they’re trying to do.”
Fuller, 69, cast an absentee ballot in person at Milwaukee’s Midtown polling location, a voting center located among predominantly Black neighborhoods.
“I made a conscious decision to vote early. I want my vote to count, period,” Fuller said. “I’ve been following the recount and I don’t agree with it. It’s another way of people who are in power to just simply try to overturn the vote.”
But fellow early voter Perfecto Rivera disagrees.
Rivera, who sits on the executive board of the Republican Party of Milwaukee County, said he had no confidence in how the election was conducted in Wisconsin and believed Trump had won. Rivera said he wanted to see large numbers of ballots thrown out — including his own.
“As far as I’m concerned, as long as they take away all the ones that were done early and are mail-ins, then, yes, mine can go in the garbage too,” Rivera said.
Wisconsin has long conducted early and mail-in voting the same way under an election system that was built by Republicans who controlled all of state government for eight years.
The Trump campaign is not challenging ballots cast in the very same way in other, more Republican counties, which threatens to create an uneven system where mainly Democrats are penalized for following the rules as they were instructed to do.
Cordelia Robinson, a retired Briggs & Stratton worker in her 60s, said Trump can’t accept the defeat.
Robinson lives on Milwaukee’s north side and normally votes on Election Day. But facing knee surgery, she decided to vote early at the Midtown polling location.
“I had to go vote early otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to go and vote because of the surgery,” Robinson said. “It didn’t take long. It was very organized, very organized. I think that’s why there was such a big turnout because of the early voting. It was more convenient for everybody.
“It’s just crazy,” she said of the possibility that her ballot would be tossed.
In Milwaukee County, affected voters are spread evenly throughout the county, according to the Journal Sentinel analysis. In Dane County, most of the ballots that would be tossed are concentrated in the city of Madison.
Karen Albers, who lives in Wauwatosa and is active with the Republican Party of Milwaukee County, said she followed the instructions of a Wauwatosa clerk when she voted early in person and considered the process “airtight.”
She said she thought there should be scrutiny of ballots that were requested through the state’s online system, rather than of ballots like hers.
“As far as the in-person early voting, there you went to the city clerk and you showed your ID and you filled out the ballot, the envelope, yourself and they considered that to be the application, which satisfies me,” she said. “But the online requests for ballots that’s a real cesspool I would say of lack of control. They just didn’t have a good audit trail on that.”
If successful, the Trump campaign would toss out votes from his own supporters like Albers, Rivera and other Republicans, including state Sen. Alberta Darling of River Hills and Rep. Jessie Rodriguez of Oak Creek, who both voted early.
Jacob Johnson, 32, of Wauwatosa, also voted early on Oct. 23 with his wife, Kaitlyn. He said given the convenience of the experience, “I’d be shocked if this isn’t much more popular going forward.”
He anticipated that if filed, the lawsuits would fail.
“I think the individuals filing those lawsuits are grasping at straws at this point. … I think it’s a last-ditch attempt to hold on to what little power they still have,” he said.
Trump limited his recount request to the state’s two most Democratic counties. The counties’ boards of canvassers have rejected the Trump campaign’s sweeping requests to toss thousands of ballots, but the campaign could use those decisions to file a lawsuit and make Trump’s case to a judge.
The recount is expected to be finished by Sunday and the state Elections Commission plans to certify Wisconsin’s results on Tuesday.
The Trump campaign has focused on in-person absentee voters but also has repeatedly argued to toss votes from those who marked themselves indefinitely confined, like Tee Gee Levy and her husband, Alan Levy, of the north shore village of Bayside.
“We’re beyond senior. We’re really old. My husband just turned 80 and I’m 78. So there was no way we were going to vote in person,” Tee Gee Levy said. “It’s not justified at all. I’m surprised there are attorneys still going after it. I wish more people would speak out.”
Greg Lewis, executive director of voter outreach group Souls to the Polls and assistant pastor at St. Gabriel Church of God and Christ, said the Trump campaign is targeting voters who utilized long-standing options in an effort to stay safe during the coronavirus pandemic.
Lewis and Souls to the Polls were part of a large group that sued the state ahead of the April election for state Supreme Court.
That lawsuit resulted in loosening some voting rules for that election because of the coronavirus pandemic, but the usual voting policies were put back in place for the November election.
“Someone needs to make sense here,” said Lewis, a Biden supporter. “We certainly had to be careful with connecting with other people. That’s why the goal was to make it safe and simple for people to get out to vote.”
“That would be quite a reach to just blatantly discount people who came in to cast their votes early,” he said. “It’s dumb, it’s stupid, it’s ignorant. It doesn’t even make sense.”