More than 1.1 million Wisconsin residents returned their absentee ballots for last Tuesday’s election. The unprecedented number of absentee ballots meant an increased workload for local clerks.
Madison City Clerk Maribeth Witzel-Behl says processing these ballots presented unique challenges.
“Given the increase in absentee requests, and the way this election has been so different from other elections, a lot of the work that we’ve been doing this past month typically would not exist for an April election,” she said.
During a typical April election, the Madison clerk’s office would not use any tabulators during its canvassing process. Witzel-Behl says this time, they had to use 16 tabulators to count the ballots on time. The clerk’s office also recruited volunteers and city employees from other departments to process and file completed ballots.
“Yesterday it was the parking utility cashiers, but they’ve been helping out all along,” she said. “Along with people from building inspection, Monona Terrace, the fire department. Many, many city agencies have been helping through this past month.”
After more than 1700 of the city’s poll workers resigned due to health concerns, city employees stepped in to fill their roles, according to Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway. But she says the city clerk’s office had been planning for an emergency situation for weeks.
“There was nothing normal about this election,” she said. “We actually started planning as soon as we knew we were in a public health crisis. As we got closer and closer to election day we realized that we needed to mobilize staff into the clerk’s office to help.”
Earlier this month, the state flip-flopped on its absentee ballot submission methods. On Thursday, April 2nd, U.S. District Judge William Conley ruled that absentee ballots submitted without a verified witness would be counted, going against standard protocol. As long as the voter submitted a signed affidavit stating they made a reasonable effort to secure a witness, their vote still counted.
One day later on Friday, April 3rd, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that ruling, saying all ballots must have the witness’ signature in order to be counted.
That confusion meant that voters who affirmed that they had no witness on their absentee ballot would not be counted. But they could also not head to the polls on Election Day, since the ballot had technically been returned.
According to Witzel-Behl, 140 Madison ballots were not counted because they followed the original April 2nd guidelines and did not have a witness signature.
Typically, election results would begin to roll in the same day as in-person voting. But due to last-minute litigation and decisions, clerks were ordered not to release their totals until last night. And only ballots postmarked or received by April 7th were considered valid.
At least 340 Madison ballots were rejected because they were postmarked after the 7th, according to Witzel-Behl.
Still, Wisconsinites turned out to vote in this election. More than 34% of those eligible to vote, did. That’s ten percent less than voter turnout during the 2016 fall election. And this election turnout was most comparable to the 2008 spring election.
Photos c/o City of Madison Clerk’s Office