These Are the Clerks Who Carried Wisconsin Through its April Pandemic Election. Here Are Their Fears About November.
Absentee ballots for November's general election sit on a table while clerk Wendy Smith works on mailing out absentee ballots. (Mark Hoffman/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)
By day, Wendy Smith — a tattooed, magenta-haired, motorcycle-riding 49-year-old — is a data analyst for an insurance company.
By night, she is the part-time clerk for the town of Nokomis, population 1,359.
And in November, Smith will be one of the most important people in Wisconsin.
That’s because she and her 1,900 fellow clerks — who worked overtime to rush a million absentee ballots to voters for Wisconsin’s chaotic spring election amidst a pandemic — will be asked to do the same thing again in three months, with potentially double the number of ballots.
“I thought it would be better after April,” said Smith, sitting in her cramped office at the town hall, across from a salvage yard. “And all it’s gotten is worse.”
Over the past three months, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Columbia Journalism Investigations and FRONTLINE interviewed more than 50 clerks across Wisconsin, finding that many are concerned about a repeat of the state’s messy April primary, when thousands of absentee ballots went missing or reached voters late.
From farming towns to major cities, clerks’ worries ranged from the labor-intensive absentee ballot process to their distrust of the postal system to the ever-changing directives from judges and officials.
Clerks said that few people understand the behind-the-scenes work that goes into processing an absentee ballot: from verifying IDs to entering information into state databases to stuffing envelopes. That’s not to mention all the work clerks do tracking down voters who made mistakes on their forms, preparing for in-person voting or completing non-election related duties.
It’s particularly stressful in Wisconsin, which is one of 17 states where a voter can request an absentee ballot up to five days before Election Day, but must return their completed ballot to the election office by Election Day to be counted. It’s a turnaround time that clerks say is virtually impossible to meet.
The stakes are high.
The past two presidential elections saw more than 3 million ballots cast in Wisconsin. If the pattern from April holds, that means more than 1.8 million voters could cast absentee ballots by mail this November, a volume that election officials said would present “terrific challenges.”
“We don’t want Wisconsin to become a poster child of how not to do an election,” said David Canon, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Canon said he’s reminded of the 2000 presidential election, when confusion over “hanging chads” and a margin of just 537 votes gave Florida — and the presidency — to George W. Bush.
As a key swing state, Wisconsin also has little room for error. Donald Trump won the Badger State by just 22,000 votes in 2016, securing the presidency. Yet in April’s primary, 150,000 absentee ballots — about 10% of all ballots sent — were either not returned or rejected due to errors.
“You can have the whole presidential election riding on the results of that one clerk up in northern Wisconsin,” Canon said. “It really could come down to that.”
More than running elections
In most of Wisconsin’s cities and towns, clerks do far more than run elections.
They manage cemeteries and boat landings. They do accounting and liquor licensing. They take minutes, respond to public records requests and sell stickers for the town compost site.
Most are female, and many skew older. Some have second jobs as hairdressers or travel agents.
Wisconsin’s clerks have juggled these duties even as elections have gotten more complex, expensive and politically-charged over the years.
“Elections used to be about one-tenth of our job. It’s now about one-fifth or one-fourth of our jobs,” said Barbara Van Clake, who has served as city clerk of Omro in Winnebago County for 21 years. “It’s hard to keep up, especially with the pandemic. It put a lot of strain on everything.”
In interviews, many clerks said they had never been more frustrated by the dizzying number of changes and reversals instituted by lawmakers, election officials and judges.
Most recently, in June, a federal appeals court made several sweeping rulings in a three-year-old lawsuit, including one order requiring voters to have lived in their home for at least 28 days in order to cast an absentee ballot, instead of 10 days.
Smith, the Nokomis clerk, had already printed and pre-stuffed hundreds of absentee ballot envelopes in an attempt to be proactive. She now has to redo her work, since her forms listed the now-obsolete 10-day standard.
“People making these changes aren’t on the front lines,” Smith said. “They’re making changes, and we’re jumping through hoops on a dime.”
Not all clerks said they are stressed. Many, especially in smaller towns and cities, said they recruited coworkers or family members or took on additional tasks themselves to ensure April went smoothly, and they’re prepared to do it again.
In the farming town of Colby in Clark County, Clerk Theoline Ludwig drove to the homes of elderly voters to show them how to upload their photo ID to the state’s voter registration website.
In Sheboygan, first-time Clerk Peggy Fischer dropped off ballots on the porches of residents who were quarantined, waited while they filled the ballots out and signed as their witness.
But for others, it was too much.
In Kenosha, Clerk Debra Salas said she and her staff worked from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. seven days a week to process more than 15,600 absentee ballot requests — 10 times the number she expected.
Afterwards, Salas decided to retire — something the 57-year-old hadn’t planned to do for several more years.
“I worked there for over 33 years,” Salas said. “And it just took its toll. It really did.”
“It’s just not possible”
The biggest issue is Wisconsin’s highly tedious absentee ballot process, which was never designed to handle a large volume of requests.
Clerks say the process isn’t hard, but the system’s numerous steps and many quirks create room for error.
Each absentee ballot takes between 14 to 18 clicks to process, from verifying the voter’s identification to manually entering their information in a statewide voter registration database. That does not include making mailing labels or stuffing the envelopes.
“When you’ve got a low four-digit number of ballots, that’s OK,” said Celestine Jeffreys, chief of staff to Green Bay Mayor Eric Genrich. “When you’ve got a five-digit number of ballots, that’s a lot.”
In states that vote entirely by mail, like Utah and Washington, much of the work is automated with machines that read paperwork, slice open envelopes, check signatures and stack ballots. Experts estimate it would take Wisconsin years — and millions of dollars in new equipment — to get to that level of sophistication.
However, the Wisconsin Elections Commission has vowed several changes to streamline the process for clerks ahead of November, including making the state election website MyVote more user-friendly and streamlining the voter registration system known as WisVote.
“We certainly recognize and appreciate clerks’ concerns about November,” said commission spokesman Reid Magney. “Clerks will have a big job in serving their voters for the November election, but unlike April, we’ve had time to prepare for it.”
Still, because Wisconsin’s process is so manual, clerks say that even seemingly small annoyances can become major roadblocks.
In Menasha, Clerk Debbie Galeazzi said some ballots were undeliverable due to “goof-ups” when she typed in the wrong address.
“The process is simple, but it’s putzy,” Galeazzi said. “We had to train our eyes when we looked at these applications.”
In the village of Mt. Pleasant, Clerk Stephanie Kohlhagen pointed out that the online voter registration system takes several hours to reflect that a ballot has been processed. That puts the burden on clerks to try to remember which applications have already been done.
“It’s a volume game,” Kohlhagen said. “You get overloaded and you think you have it all right and then something happens. You can’t catch everything.”
Many clerks also reported WisVote crashed during the spring election, crippled by the number of users trying to work at the same time.
Even for experienced clerks such as Deborah Stark from the town of Algoma in Winnebago County, the prospect of processing double the number of absentee votes is hard to fathom.
“It is near impossible for me and the administrative assistant to get out that many again,” said Stark, who said she worked 12-hour days, seven days a week, to complete all the absentee ballot requests for April. “It’s just not possible.”
Let down by lawmakers
For some clerks, it’s Election Day that worries them most.
With an unprecedented number of absentee ballots and a shortage of poll workers, many are expecting huge delays in counting votes.
For years, Wisconsin’s clerks have pushed state lawmakers to allow them to open and feed ballots into tabulator machines as soon as they arrive in the mail, so they are already checked for errors and processed.
The actual tally would not be counted or revealed to anybody until Election Day.
But the proposal lost momentum in the state Legislature after the Senate postponed its floor session due to the coronavirus, said Brookfield City Clerk Kelly Michaels.
“We’ve been trying for three years to get some relief,” said Michaels, who also chairs the legislative committee of the Wisconsin Municipal Clerks Association. “There’s not enough flexibility in the current laws.”
Counting ballots is time-consuming work: Poll workers have to check envelopes for signatures, remake ballots that are torn, reconcile the votes and make reports to send to the state.
In April, it took workers in Milwaukee more than a week to come up with a final tally for the city.
Barry Burden, director of the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said even one city with difficulties reconciling votes on Election Day could leave the entire country waiting to know who is president.
“And if there are doubts about whether the process was legitimate, then that has the problem of feeding the losers, giving them ammunition to complain that they think it wasn’t a proper election,” Burden said.
In preparation, some clerks are dipping into their already limited budgets to rent or purchase additional tabulator machines, which run up to $25,000 each.
“The Legislature thinks there would be too much fraud or something, but I can’t see how that would even happen,” said Van Clake, the clerk in Omro. “We’ve been waiting on legislation to help us out, to make our job easier, that never comes to fruition.”
Post office woes
Clerks also remain troubled by problems at the U.S. Postal Service.
In April, absentee ballots were delayed or missing in more than 100 Wisconsin municipalities, according to an investigation by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, FRONTLINE and Columbia Journalism Investigations.
In a report released in July, the U.S. Postal Service said poorly-designed address labels and the inattention of a few letter carriers resulted in delays. However, the report focused only on a few case studies in Fox Point and Milwaukee.
Several clerks said they are still mystified by why some ballots failed to reach voters.
Kohlhagen, the Clerk of Mt. Pleasant, said a batch of ballots she mailed on March 30 appeared to never make it to voters.
“I think only two came back from that day,” Kohlhagen said. “(The USPS) either doesn’t know or they’re not saying.”
State elections officials hope that implementing USPS Intelligent Mail barcodes will solve the problem. The barcodes on the envelope will allow the postal system and voters to track online the exact location of their ballot, in the same way packages are tracked.
But there are larger issues at play, clerks said.
Over the years, financial instability at the postal service forced closures of several local distribution centers across the state.
As a result, a Madison voter who lives less than a mile from city hall will still have their ballot routed to Milwaukee before being returned to Madison, adding a day or two onto the delivery time. Likewise, a voter in Eau Claire may see their mail sent to a distribution center in St. Paul, Minnesota.
In addition, the postal service recently ordered its letter carriers to leave mail behind at distribution centers if they are at risk of delaying their carrier routes, worrying vote-by-mail advocates.
That means that even though Wisconsin’s deadline for requesting an absentee ballot is five days before Election Day, it is virtually impossible for clerks to issue a ballot on Thursday and receive it in time to be counted on Tuesday.
Spurred by a sense of duty, many clerks improvised their own solutions and plan to do so again for November.
Clerk Terri Kalan of Superior opened a drop-box in front of her office so people could leave their ballots instead of placing them in the mail. Clerk Megan Humitz of suburban Glendale drove ballots to the downtown Milwaukee post office herself.
And Fischer, the clerk for Sheboygan, persuaded her local postmaster not to put ballots into the mail, so she could pick them up herself.
“We just didn’t have enough turnaround time,” Fischer said.
Clerks turning to high school students for help
The unexpected costs of the spring election also wiped out the budgets of many municipalities.
In June, the Wisconsin Elections Commission said it would distribute $4.1 million from the federal CARES Act aid package to help clerks offset pandemic-related elections costs.
But elections experts pointed out that many municipalities have been asking for years, even before COVID-19, for additional funding to pay for election and security issues.
“The clerks don’t write the law,” Burden said. “They simply try to run a fair election given what the law is and given the resources they have. And that’s harder and harder to do.”
The cost of absentee ballots runs between $1 to $3 per ballot, due to the materials, printing and postage. That doesn’t include other expenses such as cleaning supplies, overtime pay and equipment such as printers and scanners that many clerks now need.
For Betty Cushing, Town Clerk of Hazelhurst, the additional federal funding will not cover the lost revenue and extra costs the town has sustained from the pandemic.
“November will be a nightmare,” said Cushing, who has been clerk for 20 years. “I should have retired last year.”
Clerks say they also need more people power.
In April, many recruited friends or coworkers — including local police, parks staff or even their own kids — for help printing applications or stuffing envelopes.
Many clerks are also short on poll workers after thousands of them, mostly retirees, dropped out in the lead-up to the April election due to coronavirus concerns.
Clerks are asking for help from high school students and temp agencies to help fill in the gaps, but say it’s time-consuming to train and watch over new staff.
“Having temporary people, not really knowing what they were doing and just being placed in there, that was difficult,” said Caren Brustmann, Clerk of the Village of Whitefish Bay.
As for voters, clerks had just one message: Get your absentee ballot requests done early.
If coronavirus cases continue to grow, “we may be in the same situation as we were in April,” said Mackenzie Reed-Kadow, Deputy Clerk of the City of Manitowoc. “Struggling with poll workers, struggling with absentee ballots.
“I would like to say we will be well-prepared, but I don’t know what the fall might bring.”
Reporters Daphne Chen and Dana Brandt are with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel; Catharina Felke, Elizabeth Mulvey and Stephen Stirling are from Columbia Journalism Investigations, with support from FRONTLINE.