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Wisconsin Election Commission Tries To Wrap Its Arms Around April Election, Plan For Future

Marti Mikkelson
People wait in line to vote at Riverside High Scool in Milwaukee on April 7, 2020.

The Wisconsin Election Commission held a special meeting on Saturday to dissect the state’s recent Spring Election and presidential primary.

Commission Administrator Meagan Wolfe described the April 7 events as unprecedented.

“We’re the first state to run a statewide election in the middle of a statewide stay-at-home order,” Wolfe said.

Wolfe told commissioners that her staff worked practically around the clock to help local clerks run as safe and smooth an election as possible. “As this crisis evolved, we heard from local election officials that they were having a great deal of trouble procuring or finding sanitization supplies or personal protective equipment,” Wolfe said.

Wolfe said her team had to take non-traditional measures. “We worked with a local distillery to get 8,000 liters of liquid alcohol, a 70% solution, spray bottles, wipes for voting equipment, surgical masks, latex gloves, ballpoint pens for every voter, rolls of painter tape and over 10,000 signs to promote social distancing and public health practices,” she said.

An unprecedented number of voters requested absentee ballots, Wolfe said. “It went from less than 10% cast by mail to over 80% were cast by mail in this election,” she described.

The board fell into a lengthy debate, when Commissioner Robert Spindell sharply criticized Milwaukee’s decision to dramatically consulate its network of polling sites from 180 to five.

“You force all of these people into an artificially few voting stations to say nothing of the confusion and chaos that’s created. And there’s enough people out there to have 30 or 40 or 50 or 60 or 70 or 80, in my opinion, polling places,” Spindell added, “I think this this is shame on Milwaukee.”

Milwaukee’s top election official, Neil Albrecht, has said he opened the number of polling places he believed he could safely staff, based on the high number of poll workers who chose not to work out of concern over the coronavirus.

The commission did agree on one an issue raised by commissioner Mark Thomsen – unanswered questions about absentee voting.

“Of the total number of absentee ballots requested, how many were returned, and the ones that weren’t returned, what happened to them. And the second component is, of all the returned absentee ballots, how many were not counted and why,” Thomsen added, “I just think to the extent we can provide as much detail as possible we have an obligation to synthesize that and get it out to the public.”

The state Election Commission staff has been tasked with looking for answers, but administrator Wolfe offered hope that Wisconsin might face an absentee ballot debacle again.

A $7 million federal grant will help the Commission set up a postal tracking system using what’s called intelligent barcodes through which ballots can be tracked.

“States that use a lot of vote by mail have intelligent barcodes, which allow you to track a ballot like you would a package,” Wolfe added, “We wouldn’t find ourselves in a position where there were bins of ballots that couldn’t be accounted for if there were intelligent barcodes because it would tell you at what point it was in the process.”

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