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Wisconsin’s Vote-By-Mail Debacle Was Worse Than You Think
Election workers sort vote-by-mail ballots for the presidential primary at King County Elections in Renton, Washington on March 10, 2020.
JASON REDMOND/AFP via Getty Images

Earlier this year – at the height of the coronavirus pandemic – Wisconsin attempted to keep its primary intact by creating a hybrid system where some people could vote in-person in small numbers at a few polling places while others could request mail-in ballots.

The results were predictably disastrous, which is not to say a similar system with better planning is not possible. On April 7, after the primary, The New York Times reported that Wisconsin’s Democratic primary resulted in long lines, with many residents not receiving their absentee ballots or being unable to return them. The Times predictably tried to downplay the struggles while placing most of the blame on state Republicans, but we now have a better idea of just how bad the problem was in Wisconsin.

The U.S. Postal Service’s internal watchdog released a report on July 7 detailing the failures of Wisconsin’s mail-in ballot system. The report found that many voters either received their ballots late or not at all, with some being sent to the wrong destination. There were four major problems with the attempt detailed in the report, two of which occurred in Milwaukee.

Nearly 400 absentee ballots from Milwaukee voters had issues, including missing or illegible postmarks and some that lacked a postmark date. The Inspector General report said post office officials worked with election officials to validate all but 40 of the postmarks after the election took place. Many Milwaukee voters also reported that they never received their ballots, which they had requested on March 22 and March 23. For some reason, requests from those two particular days were mishandled, though the post office could not figure out a definitive reason, suspecting a computer glitch in a system run by Wisconsin election officials. The ballots lacked intelligent barcodes that would have allowed investigators to track them.

The other problems occurred in two separate communities: Fox Point and Fox Valley. Ballots were misdelivered in Fox Point by a mail carrier who gave around 160 ballots to the village’s election office instead of the actual voters, the report found. This mail carrier “admitted to not reviewing each ballot to confirm the destination address before returning them to the Fox Point [election office],” the report found. In addition to this mistake, mail was not logged properly, and the town’s address labels may have led to some issues. Above each resident’s name were the words “Village of Fox Point,” which the IG report suggested led to confusion. Finally, numbers on the labels may have caused sorting machinery to send the mail to the wrong place.

In Fox Valley, about 750 ballots didn’t get to voters earlier enough for them to fill them out and return them. Officials in Appleton, Wisconsin used a third-party mail vendor to deliver the ballots, but the vendor didn’t receive the ballots until the day before the election. The vendor didn’t give the ballots to the post office until 6 p.m. election day, the report found.

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