“They Should Have Done Something”: Broad Failures Fueled Wisconsin Ballot Crisis, Investigation Shows
Tom and Altha Arden, from South Milwaukee, never received their absentee ballots for the Spring 2020 election. Many absentee voters never got their ballots. (Rick Wood / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)
In Lodi and Pewaukee, Wisconsin, voters were told the system for requesting absentee ballots crashed.
In Marshfield, Shorewood and Bristol, voters threw up their hands after spending hours in front of computers trying to request a ballot.
In Milwaukee and Green Bay, dozens of couples said one member of their household received a ballot while the other didn’t.
“Nobody cared,” said Brenda Lewis, a Delafield resident who said her local clerk could find no record of her or her husband ever requesting an absentee ballot, even though both of them had.
“They should have done something, some sort of public service [announcement], something, just something,” Lewis said. “But nobody did.”
An investigation by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, FRONTLINE and Columbia Journalism Investigations into Wisconsin’s missing ballot crisis reveals a system leaking from all sides, buckling under the weight of a global pandemic and partisan bickering that kept the logistics of Election Day up in the air until less than a day before polls opened.
Inadequate computer systems, overwhelmed clerks and misleading ballot information hampered Wisconsin’s historic — and historically troubling — spring election.
With the prospect of COVID-19 persisting into the fall and beyond, and more elections on the calendar ahead of the presidential ballot in November — which could produce triple the number of votes by mail — eyes will remain fixed on Wisconsin.
Election officials have largely blamed the U.S. Postal Service for many of the missing absentee ballots that forced some citizens to don masks and stand in line on Election Day this month, increasing their risk of contracting the potentially fatal disease COVID-19.
But the investigation by the Journal Sentinel, FRONTLINE and Columbia, based on interviews with voters, election officials and political experts, as well as responses from more than 600 people to an online questionnaire, shows the problems went far beyond mailing issues.
People from nearly 100 Wisconsin cities and towns responded to the Journal Sentinel’s online request for readers to share their information if they did not receive their absentee ballots. Many said they tried requesting their absentee ballots multiple times.
Some people received too many ballots. Some received empty envelopes. Some gave up trying to navigate the state’s request system. Others got their ballots after Election Day.
Three people — two in Mequon and one in West Allis — said they were mailed duplicate ballots. In Wauwatosa, one couple said they received envelopes with no ballots.
In Milwaukee, three would-be voters said they received a form letter from Mayor Tom Barrett thanking them for requesting an absentee ballot — but not the ballot itself.
Officials sent ballots to college students to dorms they had been forced to vacate. For some Wisconsin residents wintering in New Mexico and Florida, ballots simply never showed up.
Nineteen Wisconsin citizens across eight cities — from New Auburn in the north to Bristol in the south — said they requested absentee ballots only to later be told the system had no record of their applications.
“I was not happy,” said Milwaukee resident Tom Arden, 71. He said he and his wife requested absentee ballots two weeks before Election Day but found out from a City Hall staffer that no record of their request existed.
“It wasn’t her fault, but that’s not funny,” Arden said. “It’s damn serious. That’s crazy that they dropped the ball as badly as they did.”
Wisconsin residents can request absentee ballots through letter, email or the state-run MyVote website. For presidential primaries, state law requires clerks to mail ballots within one business day from the time a request is received, if the request is made within 47 days of Election Day.
Roughly 1.28 million absentee ballots had been sent, but as of Friday more than 150,000 absentee ballots had not yet been returned, according to the latest tallies from the Wisconsin Elections Commission.
Less than 12% of votes cast in the 2016 spring election and presidential preference primary were absentee, according to the Wisconsin Elections Commission. This year, an estimated 73% of votes were cast absentee, although officials are still counting ballots.
In response to the Journal Sentinel, FRONTLINE and Columbia investigation, Neil Albrecht, head of the Milwaukee Election Commission, acknowledged that thousands of ballots had not reached their intended recipients in Milwaukee.
“It was not an appropriate environment to be administering an election,” said Albrecht. “It was chaos, and chaos is never good for the administration of an election.”
Albrecht also pointed to inaccuracies with MyVote, the website run by the Wisconsin Elections Commission where voters can request and track the progress of their absentee ballots, including the date their ballot was mailed.
Albrecht said the date actually reflects the date the mailing label was generated — not the date a ballot was mailed.
It typically took employees another three to seven days to assemble, mail and deliver the ballot, depending on how backlogged the office was, city election officials said.
Asked whether he thought the website was misleading, Albrecht said the issue was “an improvement opportunity.”
Still, he said the majority of problems lay with the post office, and that issues such as empty envelopes or people being unable to find their registrations were rare. According to Albrecht, dozens of staffers in Milwaukee worked seven days a week until 11 p.m. to process ballots.
At the state level, Wisconsin Elections Commission spokesperson Reid Magney acknowledged inaccuracies with MyVote’s ballot tracking feature and said the agency is looking at improving the feature “based on the user feedback we have received.”
However, Magney said the commission believes the majority of problems stem from the post office or mailing vendors used by local clerks.
He said programmers looked through MyVote’s code and logs but found no explanation for the large numbers of missing or late absentee ballots reported in late March.
“The more change you have close to an election, the more likely you are to have problems,” Magney said.
In Madison, City Clerk Maribeth Witzel-Behl said there was “no way humanly possible” to keep up with the volume of requests.
According to Witzel-Behl, staffers were working 110 hours a week but still had a week’s worth of backlogs by mid-March. Their computer system became so bogged down by the volume of applications that it only began working quickly after 10 p.m., she said.
“You reach a point of working so many hours, your eyes glaze over, and you risk making an error,” she said.
In the town of Delafield, where Brenda Lewis and her husband faced problems, Clerk Dan Green said he was unsure why the system had no trace of the pair’s absentee ballot applications.
According to Green, the MyVote website crashed “a few times,” but he said citizens would not have been able to request ballots at all while the system was down.
Citizens, officials still searching for explanations
The lead-up to Wisconsin’s chaotic April 7 election was consumed by political infighting, changing deadlines, four lawsuits and a breakneck ascension through the court system that ended up on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court.
The result was a surreal Election Day that took place as the state topped 2,500 confirmed coronavirus cases and nearly 100 deaths, with scores of voters across the state complaining that they had not received their absentee ballots.
Facing furious voters, Milwaukee election officials called on the Postal Service the next day to investigate widespread reports of missing absentee ballots. U.S. Sens. Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat, and Ron Johnson, a Republican, made a similar request in a letter two days later, asking the Postal Service to “determine the cause of these failures, which appear to have disenfranchised many Wisconsin voters.”
Bob Sheehan, a spokesperson for the U.S. Postal Service in Wisconsin, wrote in an email that the agency’s Office of the Inspector General is investigating but would not comment further.
In Wauwatosa, first-time absentee voter Jesse Weinberg said he and his wife received envelopes with no ballots inside.
In an email provided to the Journal Sentinel, their city clerk apologized to Weinberg for the “mishap” and explained that employees had accidentally sent a tray of mail to the mailing room “too soon,” before stuffing the envelopes.
In Mequon, retiree Tom Richardson said he and his wife both received duplicate ballots. According to Richardson, his local clerk said the office had accidentally mailed a “batch of duplicates” and advised the couple to discard one set of ballots and mail in the others.
Mequon City Clerk Caroline Fochs did not respond to calls and emails for comment.
But in an email exchange with Richardson, a copy of which was provided to the Journal Sentinel, FRONTLINE and Columbia, Fochs assured the retiree that it is “not possible for both ballots to end up being counted in the system.”
Ryan Kapp, a college student in Minneapolis, said he waited for a week and a half before calling the clerk’s office in his hometown of Middleton to inquire why his absentee ballot had not arrived.
According to Kapp, the employee told him his ballot had been accidentally mailed out without a street name, and that his was among several that were returned as undeliverable.
“They didn’t concern themselves with it until I decided to call,” Kapp said.
After taking down his address for a second time, the employee sent out a replacement ballot, Kapp said. But it didn’t arrive until April 10 — three days after Election Day.
The Middleton City Clerk’s Office did not respond to a call or email seeking information on what happened.
The vast majority of people who wrote to the Journal Sentinel in the online questionnaire said they requested absentee ballots at least two weeks in advance of Election Day but did not receive them on time.
Paloma Chavez, four-months pregnant, said she applied for an absentee ballot on March 22, but it never arrived.
On Election Day, the Milwaukee resident said she called and emailed both the Wisconsin Election Commission and the city office and was given conflicting information about her ability to receive an email ballot or qualify for curbside voting.
“I was shell-shocked,” Chavez said. “It feels like the one thing I have control over — my voice — is being taken away from me. Mistakes got made, but not on my end here.”
Another common problem reported by voters: Forty-four people across nine cities said they did not receive their absentee ballot even though other members of their household did.
Many said they submitted their applications about the same time or even after their partners or roommates.
Milwaukee resident Lori Yanny, 65, said she submitted her application for an absentee ballot just two hours before her husband — on the same computer they share at home.
Her husband received his ballot a week and a half after requesting it, Yanny said. Hers never arrived. Nor did a replacement ballot she requested on March 31.
Yanny said she made the “difficult decision” not to vote in person due to coronavirus concerns.
“In the past 30 years, I have voted in almost every election — even the little ones,” she said.
Albrecht, the Milwaukee election commission head, said applications are not always processed in chronological order. As a result, he said, Yanny’s application was mailed on March 22, the day after her husband’s.
He said a large number of ballots mailed on March 22 and March 23 appeared to have been lost in the mail — part of what the city has called on the postal service to investigate.
A cumbersome system
In Wisconsin’s decentralized election system, much of the responsibility falls on local clerks, whose staffs are often tiny and not equipped to handle a surge in applications.
At the state-level, the Wisconsin Elections Commission maintains both the MyVote website, where voters can request and track their absentee ballot, and WisVote, where absentee applications and requests are stored.
Each absentee ballot application submitted through MyVote is converted into an email. The state’s 1,850 municipal clerks are in charge of opening each email, verifying the voter’s identification, manually entering the application information into the statewide voter registration database and printing the mailing labels.
However, most municipal clerks do not have access to WisVote, and must ask another official, such as a county clerk, to manually enter the applicant’s information in the database.
“This system was designed for a world in which 5% of voters voted by mail, not for a system in which 70% of voters voted by mail,” said Charles Stewart, a political science professor and election expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “So something has to give, and the thing that ends up giving is probably the accuracy of the request for the ballot.”
Barry Burden, director of the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said officials have limited time to make improvements for Wisconsin’s upcoming elections, including a special Congressional race next month and the statewide primary in August.
Democratic state lawmakers are even calling for a mail-in vote for the November presidential election, although Republicans are unlikely to hear the bill.
“There is not a lot of breathing room,” Burden said.
Daphne Chen is an an investigative and data reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel; Catharina Felke, Elizabeth Mulvey and Stephen Sterling are from Columbia Journalism Investigations.