Voting stations at the Eagle Point town hall in Chippewa County (Photo by Pat Kreitlow)

Local clerks, USPS, improved websites all aim to avoid a repeat of the chaotic “pandemic election.”

Especially challenging voting conditions in the April spring election in Wisconsin provided lessons in how to plan for a smoother election in November, even with the continuing coronavirus pandemic, the Wisconsin Election Commission administrator told commissioners Tuesday.  

The spring election, held in the early weeks of the outbreak, presented multiple difficulties, among them a record number of absentee votes cast, problems with some absentee ballots being lost in the mail, challenges finding workers to staff polling places, and the closing of some of those voting sites, including nearly all of them in the city of Milwaukee. 

State election officials are addressing those issues, in part by working closely with the United States Postal Service, and are ready for the Nov. 3 election, WEC Administrator Meagan Wolfe said during a commissioners meeting Tuesday during which they reviewed a report outlining changes that have been put in place to address the shortcomings that made April’s balloting an unprecedented challenge.

“The work we have done has set us up to have a solid foundation for the election in November,” she said.

The commission expects more than 3 million state residents to vote, whether through mail-in ballots or in person. Wisconsin voters requested a record 1.3 million absentee ballots for the April election, and some residents reported delays receiving their ballots and were forced to either risk their health by voting in person amid the pandemic or stay home and not vote. 

Typically, Wolfe said, about 6 percent of voters have voted using absentee ballots, but that rose to 60 percent for the April election, necessitating updates to the election system. The percentage could be even higher for the fall election, she said, as the pandemic continues.   

Municipalities will be better prepared to handle higher numbers of absentee ballots for the November election, Wolfe said, after having taken a variety of steps to address election concerns. Among improvements, she said, are updates to the myvote.wi.gov website to streamline the ballot application process by providing more information about photo identification. 

In addition, she said, updates have been made allowing clerks to contact voters more quickly to correct problems, such as missing application information or identification photo issues, that could hinder their ability to cast ballots.

“We heard from clerks around the state that they need to be able to contact voters having issues with their absentee ballot requests,” Wolfe said.

Among other improvements, ballots sent for the November election will include intelligent barcodes that will allow clerks to track ballots as they make their way through the mail. Voters will be able to see the status of their ballots as well through the MyVote website. A system also is being developed to cancel and reissue ballots when voters have problems with the mail, Wolfe said. 

The voting system has also been changed to allow clerks to send out many absentee ballots at once by using printed labels. That system, previously used by some larger communities, will now be available to all clerks, replacing a time-consuming process of addressing envelopes by hand, Wolfe said. 

To address concerns about absentee ballots getting lost in mail, commission staff have been meeting with United States Postal Service workers since April to ensure the process works better for the fall election, she said. Improvements include clerks working more closely with local postmasters to monitor absentee ballots, which will be given a bright-green tag allowing them to be easily identified.  

Voters around the state reported problems receiving their absentee ballots in April. Bins of uncounted ballots were discovered in the Village of Fox Point, and other ballots went undelivered that were intended for Appleton and Oshkosh voters. Milwaukee election officials sought a postal service investigation when absentee ballots didn’t reach voters there. 

Commission members said problems with the postal service and absentee ballots must be addressed. The system must include as much transparency as possible, commission member Mark Thomsen said, to give voters every reason to cast ballots.

Concerns about mail-in ballots persist given efforts by President Donald Trump’s administration to hinder the USPS and cast doubts on the integrity of mail-in ballots. 

“We don’t want to wind up with a bunch of ballots sitting in a post office somewhere,” he said. 

Commissioner Dean Knudson backs efforts to force USPS accountability. But he expressed concerns with various parts of the mail-in voting process, saying it includes too many variables. 

“If you really want to make sure your vote is secure, the way to do that is to go vote in person,” he said. 

To alleviate difficulties recruiting election workers, the commission recommends that all state agencies allow employees to serve in that role along with local government workers. Clerks are also encouraged to recruit high school and college students and teachers. Poll workers can be as young as 16 in Wisconsin.

The commission also discussed ensuring enough personal protective equipment will be available at polling places. Wolfe said her staff is surveying clerks about their PPE needs and is working with the National Guard to staff those locations if needed, she said.