As ballots began pouring in by mail after Wisconsin’s April 7 primary, local election officials became increasingly perplexed over which ones to count.
A federal judge had ordered that ballots arriving as many as six days after the election should be accepted, but the U.S. Supreme Court narrowed that window, ruling that ballots should be counted only if they were postmarked by Election Day.
The trouble was that many ballots were arriving without postmarks, or the marks were unreadable. Other mail ballots were lost or delayed, threatening to disenfranchise thousands of voters. Desperate for guidance, the 1,850 municipal clerks who run Wisconsin’s elections turned to the state agency tasked with helping them: the Wisconsin Elections Commission.
Three days after the primary, the commission’s three Democrats and three Republicans wrangled over the issue for two and a half hours in a virtual meeting. The Democrats wanted all ballots received in the mail by April 8 — postmarked or not — to be accepted; the Republicans pushed to reject all ballots with missing or illegible postmarks.
“We’re going to sit here all night, 3-3, if we can’t even agree the mail takes more than a day,” said Commissioner Ann Jacobs, a Democratic appointee and lawyer, pursing her lips and shaking her head as she peered into her computer screen. “We’re not going to ever agree on whether these marks count or not — we’re wasting our time.”
Dean Knudson, a former Republican lawmaker who was chairman at the time, retorted, “Can you envision supporting any motion that would exclude any ballot?”
In the end, the commission deadlocked 3-3 not once but twice over motions to deal with the disputed ballots, leaving each of Wisconsin’s municipal clerks to decide on their own what to do. For the state’s top agency overseeing elections, such standoffs have become the norm. With the national spotlight on Wisconsin as a swing state that could sway the presidential election, the commission has become increasingly stalemated and ineffective, according to an investigation by Wisconsin Watch and ProPublica.
Although the commission has reached consensus on a handful of important issues, such as the mailing of ballot applications to voters, it increasingly stalemates along party lines. Commission members have strayed far from the apolitical approach of the panel’s predecessor board, which was considered a national model for effective election administration. Both Democratic and Republican members often take their cues from their party leaders.