Local clerks usually cover the time and expense of mailing ballots to a voter’s actual hometown, but don’t take that courtesy for granted.
[This story has been updated with comments from Reid Magney of the Wisconsin Elections Commission.]
Tom Wirth of Eau Claire wasn’t going to take any chances with his ballot for the upcoming Nov. 3 election. He applied for an absentee ballot from the Eau Claire City Clerk and, shortly after receiving it, Tom and his wife, Denise, filled it out and took it down to City Hall to “vote” by putting it in one of the four ballot drop boxes the city has installed around town.
“It did take stress off the day of the election,” said Wirth, who recently retired from a position with Eau Claire County. “For me, it (voting absentee) was very simple and I could do it on my own schedule.”
However, as more states use drop boxes for absentee ballots, making voting easier for Wirth and thousands of other eager voters, city clerks around Wisconsin are reporting issues with voters from outside their municipality dropping ballots in the wrong box. A survey of city clerks around Wisconsin by UpNorthNews revealed that clerks are having to make arrangements to return ballots to surrounding municipalities and, in some cases, mail them hundreds of miles away or even to other states.
Two kinds of mistakes seem to be most common: college students who voted absentee in their hometown elections but use the drop box in their college town, and residents who live outside of city limits who use drop boxes when they “drive into town” for shopping or other occasions. They too should be mailing or dropping off ballots in their municipality where they are registered voters, whether it’s an adjoining town or nearby village.
“We have gotten Minnesota ballots here,” said Carrie Riepl, Eau Claire city clerk, adding they probably came from students attending the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. The city has one drop box outside of city hall in downtown Eau Claire and three others at Festival Foods grocery stores.
Riepl said some 190 ballots from outside of Eau Claire have been dropped off at one of the four boxes.
“We are tracking it,” she said of the ballots from non-city voters. “Every time one comes in, we write it down. We track it by day.”
If the ballots are from residents in Eau Claire County, she said, they are turned over to the county clerk’s office, which gets them to the right jurisdiction.
“The other ones we are putting in the mail,” Reipl said. “That’s about all we can do.”
It is more than 130 miles between Oshkosh and Kenosha, but Oshkosh City Clerk Pam Ubrig said a Kenosha voter, possibly a UW-Oshkosh student, dropped a ballot off at the one drop box the city maintains at City Hall. So far, the city has received about half a dozen ballots from people who were not eligible to vote in the city, Ubrig said.
The ballot from Kenosha “we put in the mail,” she said, adding the others were turned over to the proper clerks.
Superior City Clerk Terri Kalan said her city has received “a handful (of ballots) for other municipalities in Douglas County. We turn them over to the county clerk who in turn gets them to the appropriate town/village.”
Kalan said additional signage will be added to the drop box emphasizing the box is for city of Superior ballots only.
In Wausau, City Clerk Leslie M. Kremer said the city has been averaging two to three ballots per week in its drop box from non-city voters.
“I call the clerk in the municipality these voters reside in,” Kremer said, “and the clerk decides whether to come to pick up those ballots or whether he or she calls the voter to alert them of the mistake and then have the voter stop by to pick up the ballots.”
The city has taken to social media to remind voters to use the proper drop box, Kremer said. In addition, the county clerk had local media run a story on the issue, she said.
Madison just installed drop boxes recently, city officials said, so there were no issues to report.
Reid Magney, spokesperson for the Wisconsin Elections Commission, told UpNorthNews that there are 515 ballot drop boxes in Wisconsin for this election cycle.
“Wisconsin has always had occasional issues with confusion between clerks in bigger cities and adjacent smaller towns that share a city name in their mailing address,” Magney said. “Some groups mailing out voter registration forms or absentee ballot request forms make these kinds of mistakes, so clerks are used to dealing with it and rerouting misdirected mail.
“This really highlights the need for voters to not wait until the last minute to request and return their absentee ballots, if that’s how they choose to vote,” Magney continued. “The best we can do is remind voters to follow the instructions that come with their absentee ballots regarding where to return them.”
Despite these types of issues, using the drop box continues to be popular.
Bernie Hoefgen of Eau Claire said that even though he and his wife, Karla, are going to work at the polls on Nov. 3, “We wanted to get our vote in ASAP. If the weather was really awful or if we are sick, we wanted to make sure we got our vote in. We didn’t want to take a chance.”
Jon Myre of Eau Claire said he dropped his ballot off at a box at Festival Foods. “I was going shopping anyway,” he said.
None of those interviewed said they had any qualms about the security of the ballot drop boxes. Myre said he watched an Eau Claire City Council meeting livestream, and city officials “were very adamant they were going to have a surveillance camera” trained on the box.
“We debated the box to take it to,” Wirth said, and decided the most secure was the one outside City Hall.