U.S. Supreme Court Decision Could Disenfranchise Wisconsin Voters


October 29, 2020

The U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Monday declining to extend the absentee ballot deadline in Wisconsin was not a surprise to election officials, the vast majority of whom were operating under the assumption that ballots received after Election Day would not be counted.

But the decision has raised concern among some that Wisconsinites may be disenfranchised as a result. More than 287,000 potential voters across the state have not returned their absentee ballots, and roughly 40,000 of those are in the Democratic stronghold of Milwaukee. With less than a week before Election Day, officials are warning it might be too late to mail ballots back in a state that has already seen 23,196 ballots rejected in the April 7 primary, as covered in the latest FRONTLINE documentary, Whose Vote Counts.

Kenneth R. Mayer, a politics professor at UW-Madison, said it is not a question of whether the court decision could disenfranchise voters, but how many, adding that the number could easily be in the thousands. He pointed out that a federal judge allowed for late-arriving absentee ballots in Wisconsin’s April 7 primary, providing relief for voters who received or returned their ballots late due to postal delays, as an example. This move resulted in an additional 79,054 counted votes — three times the amount of Trump’s razor-thin Wisconsin margin in the 2016 general election.

“Those ballots would not have been counted,” Mayer told FRONTLINE. “And now, no ballots that arrive after elections will be counted, and it is a certainty that there will be some.”

Read more: 2020 Election Could Hinge on Whose Votes Don’t Count

Election officials across the state — worried that the public might have been expecting an extended deadline, as in April — are scrambling to inform voters that is not the case. Diane Coenen, a clerk for the city of Oconomowoc, has been posting reminders on utility bills, public buildings and in local newspapers. She is urging voters to return ballots at her office or via a dropbox, because there is a significant risk the postal service won’t deliver on time, she told FRONTLINE. Of the city’s 12,533 registered voters, 7,336 requested absentee ballots, and 1,169 have not returned them.

A similar story is playing out in the state’s most populous city. Late last week, Milwaukee’s election commission mailed postcards to people with outstanding absentee ballots, reminding them of the deadline and the city’s dropbox locations.  

“These are people who feel they have time yet to return their ballots, and 40,000 is a really significant number,” Neil Albrecht, the former executive director of the Milwaukee Election Commission, told FRONTLINE. “I don’t want the city to lose tens of thousands of votes because the U.S. Supreme Court can’t recognize that we are in a pandemic.”

Read more: Here’s Why Concerns About Absentee Ballot Fraud Are Overhyped

The presidential election is coming at a time when Wisconsin is facing its worst coronavirus outbreak since the pandemic began. On Tuesday, the state reported 64 new coronavirus deaths, 220 new hospitalizations, and 5,262 new cases in one day. Dr. Ryan Westergaard, a chief medical officer for the state’s department of health, called the increasing numbers a “nightmare,” according to NBC’s local affiliate TMJ4.

The magnitude of the outbreak has left some of the more vulnerable voters, such as people with disabilities, struggling to cast their ballots in time. “I just received a call asking us to help two voters who are positive for COVID and have no one to witness or deliver their ballots,” Barbara Beckert, the director of the Milwaukee office of Disability Rights Wisconsin, told FRONTLINE. She added that she was “deeply disappointed” by the Supreme Court decision.

Reid Magney, the public information officer at the Wisconsin Election Commission, pointed out that absentee ballots are mailed 47 days before an election. “People have a lot of time to get their ballots and send them back,” he said. “Voters are used to having an 8 o’clock deadline in Wisconsin, and the ruling basically keeps the status quo.” For weeks, the commission has been advising clerks not to count on an extended deadline and warning against telling voters about the possibility of one.

Read more: COVID-19 and the Most Litigated Presidential Election in Recent U.S. History: How the Lawsuits Break Down

In a tight election, every electoral vote counts, and Wisconsin has 10 up for grabs. State Democrats and Republicans have ramped up their efforts in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling to ensure every vote is returned and counted on time — with a laser focus on the outstanding absentee ballots.

Almost immediately after the ruling, Ben Wikler, chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, tweeted that he was “dialing up a huge voter education campaign” and reminded his followers to hand-deliver their ballots by 8 p.m. on November 3. “The rules haven’t changed,” he tweeted.
“But the Supreme Court failed an opportunity to expand democracy. Seize your power & hit back: VOTE VOTE VOTE!”

Andrew Hitt, chair of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, said he was pleased with the ruling because it minimizes the risk of voter confusion. He has been engaged in what he calls an “absentee chase effort.” Every three days, he pulls a file from the Wisconsin Election Commission on who has requested absentee ballots and analyzes it to determine the likely Republicans. His team then calls all of the potential Trump supporters and encourages them to return their ballots.  

Although he would not disclose how many of the outstanding 287,000 absentee ballots belong to Republicans, he said, “We are very happy with the returns and where things are at.”

President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden are slated to campaign in Wisconsin on Friday.

For more on Wisconsin and the 2020 election, watch Whose Vote Counts, a documentary from FRONTLINE, Columbia Journalism Investigations, Columbia Journalism School and USA TODAY NETWORK reportersWhose Vote Counts premiered Tues., Oct. 20, 2020, on PBS stations and is available to stream in FRONTLINE’s online collection of streaming films, on YouTube, in the PBS Video App and above.

Marcia Robiou

Marcia Robiou, Associate Producer, FRONTLINE



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