The Battle to Count All of Wisconsin’s Absentee Votes

Melissa Kono is a part-time election clerk in Burnside, Wisconsin, a farming community in rural Trempealeau County, which touches the Mi...


Melissa Kono is a part-time election clerk in Burnside, Wisconsin, a farming community in rural Trempealeau County, which touches the Mississippi River. She recruits poll workers, paying twelve dollars an hour for a thirteen-hour shift. She sends absentee ballots to any of the town’s two hundred and seventy voters who properly request them. She also trains hundreds of election workers in surrounding counties in Wisconsin’s election rules, describing everything from checking photo I.D.s to coping with a power outage. She sees how much these election workers care, and she hates when she hears someone—the President of the United States, for example—malign them. “Personally, I am offended when people say the elections are rigged,” she said. “I’m responsible for my neighbor’s vote, and my election workers are responsible for their neighbors’ votes. I don’t just mail ballots out into the world.”

Already, more than 1.7 million voters have cast ballots in Wisconsin, a state that Donald Trump won by the slimmest of margins in 2016, and almost certainly needs to win again, if he is to be reëlected. Courthouse skirmishing over election rules started early, with Democrats trying to make it easier for votes to be counted and Republicans warning darkly of disorder and fraud. On Monday, the Supreme Court supported the Republican position, ruling that no mail-in ballots that arrive after Election Day will be counted, even if they are postmarked in time. Justice Brett Kavanaugh warned that ballots received after November 3rd could flip the outcome. Justice Elena Kagan, in a dissent signed by Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen Breyer, replied acidly that “there are no results to ‘flip’ until all valid votes are counted.”

Neil Albrecht, the former director of the City of Milwaukee Election Commission, predicted that some ballots from voters who follow the rules will not be tallied. “We will have late-arriving absentee ballots, particularly in the two days following the election, and those votes will be lost,” he told me. Following the Supreme Court ruling, Meagan Wolfe, the administrator of the state election commission, warned that “time is running out” to submit ballots. On Friday, Ben Wikler, the leader of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, tweeted that “it’s too late now to mail them in,” but said that mail-in ballots could be hand-delivered to drop boxes or to clerks. “We’re organizing & cranking out digital ads to make it happen,” he wrote.

The risk, as Democrats see it, is that a failure to count mail-in votes in a state facing record levels of COVID-19 cases and deaths will most deeply affect the Democratic precincts of Milwaukee and other large cities. They remember the primary election in April, when thousands of ballots arrived after Election Day, although, in that case, a court did allow them to be counted. This time, thousands of poll watchers and lawyers have been recruited to observe in-person voting and the counting of ballots—and to run to the courthouse, if necessary. “When you have a close state, you need to be ready,” Andrew Hitt, the Republican Party chairman, told me. This week’s Marquette Law School Poll showed a five-point lead for Joe Biden, but everyone recalls that Hillary Clinton led in late polls four years ago, only to become the first Democratic Presidential nominee since Walter Mondale, in 1984, to lose the state. With the ballot count, by law, not starting until Election Day, clerks expect that a nearly final statewide result will not be ready until sometime on November 4th.

The job of Wisconsin’s nineteen hundred and twenty-two clerks has rarely, if ever, been more challenging. In addition to the complications of running an election during an intense COVID-19 outbreak, Wisconsin has some of the country’s most restrictive voting rules, which were enacted by the Republican-dominated legislature and signed by former governor Scott Walker, who lost a bid for reëlection two years ago. A new photo I.D. law helped to diminish turnout in 2016, according to Albrecht, who remains a consultant for the City of Milwaukee Election Commission. Describing an election beset by confusion, he told me that the new rule was hardest on the poor, students, and seniors. “It changed how people had been voting for over a century. That really takes time to trickle down and be processed by the public,” Albrecht said. “There are still some people who will not be able to vote because of that requirement.”

This year, many voters are struggling for the first time with the intricacies of filling out absentee ballots. “The absentee rules are very confusing, and the printing on those envelopes is very small and squished together,” Kono, who marks key parts with a yellow highlighter before mailing a blank ballot, said. If a ballot envelope is returned without the signature of the voter or witness or is missing the witness’s address, she follows up. Early one recent morning, she tracked down a voter—a relative of her husband’s—who had skipped a step or two. “I just went to his house, and I knocked on the door, and I walked in,” she recounted. “I knew that he would be eating breakfast at that time, because he’s a farmer. He signed it, and his wife signed.”

That level of service is easier to muster in rural counties, but clerks across the state describe similar efforts. In Madison and Milwaukee, election workers report that they sometimes find voters and alert them to problems or fill in the addresses of witnesses themselves, when they can confirm them. Attentive voters with access to technology can check online to see if their absentee ballot has been accepted without errors. The Republican and Democratic Parties have been purchasing data files that show the same thing, allowing them to contact voters whose ballots have been rejected or were not received. The task grows harder as volumes of ballots increase and Election Day draws nearer. If voters deliver ballots with missing details too close to Election Day—or on Election Day itself—it could be too late to fix them.

An analysis of absentee balloting in the April primary, as COVID-19 took hold, showed that about twenty-three thousand ballots were thrown out. In a majority of cases, the ballot was rejected because the voter or the witness failed to sign the ballot envelope or include the address of the witness. By comparison, Trump won Wisconsin four years ago by only 22,748 votes out of about three million cast. If next week’s election is close, Democrats expect that Republicans will pay particular attention to absentee ballots in heavily Democratic areas, looking for reasons to disqualify them.

A central goal of the Wisconsin Democrats, working with the Biden campaign, is to keep the election from being so close that the result could be disputed. To increase turnout, organizers with a broad array of groups have been helping Wisconsinites register to vote and obtain ballots. Jacob Peña directs a project at Voces de la Frontera Action that has mobilized a network of twenty thousand voters, many of them Latino immigrants, often helping them to go online and request a ballot. In Green Bay, where the city sponsored a mural to encourage voting, a group of volunteers ran a drive-through line to help residents snap photos of their identification documents, register to vote, and request ballots. More than a thousand people showed up this month at a Milwaukee drive-through event that combined voter registration with the distribution of food, gift cards, and coronavirus P.P.E., which was sponsored by the Milwaukee Bucks and Michelle Obama’s When We All Vote. The group’s C.E.O., Kyle Lierman, said that the project targets unregistered voters with digital ads on their personal social-media pages, including Facebook, urging them to register.

Some efforts faced Republican opposition. When the city of Madison scheduled a project called Democracy in the Park, deploying election workers in bright yellow vests to two hundred and six public parks to register voters and collect ballots, a lawyer for the state’s top elected Republicans objected, calling it “unsecure and unlawful.” When the Milwaukee Brewers proposed using the team’s baseball park as an early-voting site, Hitt, the Republican chairman, raised questions about the plan, which was eventually dropped for other reasons. He said that the presence of players or the team’s “racing sausages” mascots—Brat, Polish, Chorizo, Hot Dog, and Italian—would amount to illegal electioneering. He made a similar argument about the Bucks, who had offered their basketball arena. When I asked Hitt about this, he said that he was only thinking about the voters. “We want to make sure that everybody clearly understands the law,” he said, “so that we don’t get in a situation where votes potentially don’t count.”

After speaking with Hitt, I tracked down Alex Lasry, a Bucks executive and former Obama White House aide, who has been a big part of the team’s efforts to boost voting. He had marched against police violence in Kenosha, after a police officer shot Jacob Blake seven times in the back. Lasry, whose father is the Bucks’ principal owner, called Hitt’s claims about electioneering “ridiculous” and saw them as part of a larger Republican pattern. “At the end of the day, there are some people who want to make it harder for people to vote, and there are other people who want to make it easier,” he said.

The A.C.L.U. is spending about a million dollars on a pitch to Wisconsin voters that voting rights themselves are on the November ballot. I asked Molly McGrath, an A.C.L.U. strategist and longtime advocate for voting rights, about the nonpartisan mobilizing campaign, which targets Black and Latino voters, as well as white women younger than forty. “Wisconsin is a hotbed for voter suppression,” McGrath, an attorney who made voting her signature theme as Miss Wisconsin 2004, said. “Any time you erect needless obstacles to the right to vote and make voting harder, that’s voter suppression. I have sat in the living rooms of voters and held their hand when they told me what it was like not to be able to vote, to not have their vote counted, for the very first time, because of the photo I.D. law.”



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Newsrust: The Battle to Count All of Wisconsin’s Absentee Votes
The Battle to Count All of Wisconsin’s Absentee Votes
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