Superior City Clerk Terri Kalan had one word to describe her office in the weeks leading up to the April 7 spring election: “Chaotic.”

In addition to recruiting and training new poll workers, planning for a safe election during a pandemic, accommodating in-person and curbside voting, and following up with voters who didn’t include their photo ID with their absentee ballot request, there were at least 100 ballots a day that had to be prepared and mailed.

It meant working nights and weekends, recruiting help in the office and spreading the work out among city staff so voters would get their ballots on time.

It was a phenomenon happening across the state in jurisdictions small, medium and large, according to a report released Monday, May 18 by the Wisconsin Elections Commission.

The April 7 election in Wisconsin was one for the record books:

  • Most mail-in ballots ever cast in any Wisconsin election.
  • Most absentee ballots ever cast in any Wisconsin election.
  • Most in-person absentee ballots cast in a Wisconsin spring election.

And those firsts resulted in the second-most total ballots ever cast in a Wisconsin spring election. The highest total happened in 2016, when both major parties had competitive presidential primaries, according to the report analyzing the role absentee voting played in the April 7 spring election and presidential primary.

Administering absentee voting

Historically, over 80% of ballots in Wisconsin are cast in-person on election day, the report said.

But absentee voting, commonly referred to as early voting, has been on the rise in Wisconsin. In April, almost 75% of all ballots cast were by absentee voters with over 60% issued and returned by mail. Nearly 1.3 million of almost 1.6 million ballots cast were absentee.

About 5,700 absentee ballots were cast in Douglas County, and 3,664 in the city of Superior alone.

“The April 7, 2020 election introduced countless challenges that Wisconsin clerks successfully overcame, enabling a record number of voters to cast their ballots through the absentee process,” the report concluded.

Douglas County Clerk Sue Sandvick said municipal clerks — many of them part-time — handled sending and receiving ballots in the 21 towns and villages outside of Superior. Her office logs data about absentee ballots for those municipalities in WisVote, the statewide voter registration system. The city of Superior does its own data entry.

She said the county couldn’t meet state guidelines for entering data into the system within 48 hours after receiving a mailed ballot.

“It was just impossible,” Sandvick said. “We were backlogged. We did, as soon as we could, get all of the data in there … My goal was to close it before the May election, and we did it.”

Kalan said closing out the April 7 election is still a work in progress in Superior.

The WEC plans to simplify the data entry process in the WisVote system and work on communicating with voters through MyVote about common issues such as submitting selfies rather than an acceptable photo ID.

Several changes were made to both systems as court rulings and other issues arose, the report said.

Mail service challenges

The report highlighted several issues with the postal service including tubs of ballots found in a postal service center after the election, ballots not received by voters and ballots returned to clerks unopened, without explanation. The commission had few answers from the postal service, not even the status of an investigation sought by U.S. Sens. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis. and Ron Johnson, R-Wis. concerning ballots mailed to the Oshkosh/Appleton area found in a distribution center after the election.

The WEC hopes to integrate intelligent mail barcodes in the absentee voting system so clerks and voters can track their ballots as they move through the postal system.

Still, the commission found that absentee voting problems weren’t any bigger than in past elections.

About 90% of absentee ballots were returned and counted, but the report noted that 1-in-10 ballots either were not returned to municipal clerks or were returned and rejected.

Kalan said court rulings surrounding the election likely contributed to problems.

“One day you didn’t need a witness signature, the next you did,” Kalan said.

Nine ballots in Superior were rejected because the ballot envelope wasn’t signed or it wasn’t signed by a witness. Fewer than 1% of the absentee ballots cast in the city were rejected, most because they lacked a postmark and arrived too late.

Statewide, most ballots were returned prior to Election Day, but nearly 7% arrived in the window between Election Day and the court-ordered deadline of 4 p.m. April 13. The extension allowed an additional 79,504 ballots to be counted in this election. Local officials reported 2,659 ballots were returned after the April 13 deadline, the WEC report said.

More elections to come

Wisconsin election officials anticipate the number of absentee voters could be even higher in November. With more than 3 million ballots cast in the last three presidential elections, the WEC estimates that 1.8 million absentee ballots could be cast in November — even if the pandemic subsides.

With an estimated turnaround time of five to seven days for a mailed ballot, according to the report, local officials are encouraging voters to request their absentee ballots now.

Ballots for the August primary won’t be mailed until late June and the November election around mid-September.

“Request it early,” Kalan said. “Request it now … That way if it gets lost in the mail or stuck in a post office in a bin, we have time to get another ballot out.”

Voters can register and request a ballot at myvote.wi.gov.