Of the elections that have been held during the COVID-19 pandemic, Wisconsin’s Spring General Election in April was by far the most troublesome. The August Primary gave election officials a chance to redeem themselves and show whether their newly adopted changes can prevent April’s chaos from happening in November.
After April’s primary, the Center for Disease Control and the City of Milwaukee Health Department reported that in-person voting did not produce a spike in COVID-19 cases like many feared would happen. But anxiety over the virus had led election officials to close hundreds of polling locations in Milwaukee before April’s election due to a lack of volunteers willing to work the polls. For the 400,000 voters who chose to vote in person in Milwaukee, this meant daunting lines at the handful of polling locations that remained open. Madison also changed many polling locations shortly before the election, potentially confusing voters.
Despite the polling location closings due to lack of volunteers, Governor Tony Evers needed to call up the National Guard to assist with remaining poll worker shortages in the city of Milwaukee as well as in 71 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties. Governor Evers again called in the National Guard to assist as poll workers for the May Special Election in the 7th Congressional District. Then, August 5, less than a week before the Primary Election, Governor Evers again mobilized the National Guard to help fulfill the demand for a poll worker shortage of over 900 poll workers.
A near ten-fold increase in the number of voters electing to vote by mail overwhelmed both county election offices and the U.S. Postal Service. As officials struggled to process more than 1.28 million absentee ballot requests, thousands of mail ballots were never sent out or delivered.
Voters had a difficult time as well. While thousands faced issues completing their ballots, even more struggled to return them on time. 23,000 mail ballots were ultimately rejected, mainly because voters failed to fill out the necessary certification requirements. An additional 79,000 ballots would have been disqualified for arriving after the Election Day deadline had it not been for a court order extending the return deadline.
To add to the turmoil, Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers issued a last-minute executive order to try and postpone the election. It was immediately challenged in court. On the eve of the election, the Wisconsin Supreme Court nullified the governor’s order, but not without damaging voter confidence and compounding voter confusion.
Needless to say, April did not go well.
It has been four months since April’s disarray, and election officials’ new adjustments helped the August Primary run smoothly. Although these changes were not fully implemented for the August Primary Election, they could mean the difference between a successful November election and a repeat of April.
Most importantly, these changes help voters vote during this challenging time without undermining the integrity of the election, as some states have done in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
First and foremost, election officials ramped up their voter education efforts to help voters understand how to properly cast their ballot. This included educating voters regarding Wisconsin’s voter identification requirements, how to register, and how to vote.
The Friday morning before the election, over 880,000 absentee ballots had already been mailed to voters, over 12 times the number sent out in 2016’s August Primary Election. To make sure ballots were not lost or misplaced like during April’s election, election officials began using a barcode system to help voters track their absentee ballots.
And because a significant number of absentee ballots were rejected in April’s election for failing to meet certain requirements, election officials allowed voters to include their contact information on their absentee ballot applications. This information was used by election officials to give voters the opportunity to correct any ballot errors that otherwise would have caused their ballots to be rejected.
The August Primary Election showed us that simple adjustments like these can make a meaningful difference to help voters while preserving processes that protect the integrity of the election. Other states should look to Wisconsin’s example leading up to November.
Matthew Kirkpatrick is a Wisconsin attorney who has worked to promote election integrity.