“The Experiences of Municipal Clerks and the Electorate in the November 2020 General Election in Wisconsin”

New report from Barry Burden. From the Executive Summary:

Despite the many challenges that election officials and voters faced as a result of the pandemic and the spread of misinformation, surveys of both groups show that the 2020 general election in Wisconsin was a tremendous success.

The share of people voting by mail jumped to a record high, particularly among individuals concerned about the spread of the virus at polling places. The vast majority of municipal clerks procured adequate resources and sufficient numbers of poll workers to conduct the election, and they found ways to manage, albeit imperfectly, much higher volumes of absentee ballots.

New resources such as grants to fund operations and National Guard members who served as poll workers helped to compensate for the greater demands on election officials managing massive increases in mail ballots and restrictions on polling place locations due to the pandemic. The vast majority of voters were served extremely well, although pockets of difficulty were experienced by some populations such as young people and voters with disabilities.

Perhaps reflecting their different experiences in 2020 and even before the pandemic, clerks disagree on some important policy proposals being considered in the wake of the election. They report sharply divergent views on whether it should be permissible to process absentee ballots before election day and whether drop boxes for collecting absentee ballots should be allowed.

These opinions are strongly correlated with the sizes of the municipal populations that clerks serve. Among other differences, clerks from larger cities were much more likely to believe that misinformation about absentee voting was a serious problem and to favor some processing of absentee ballots before election day.

Despite the disruptions it caused, the 2020 experience did not alter the opinions of clerks about some election practices. Although most clerks support the right of people to vote by mail for any reason, a significant share believe, even after the pandemic experience, that absentee voting should be limited to a small group of voters who provide evidence that they cannot appear at their assigned polling places on election day.

Despite some pointed differences between clerks from the largest and smallest municipalities, clerks are largely in agreement on other policy proposals. Examples of consensus include not making the deadline for requesting absentee ballots to be any later than it is already, requiring photo IDs for most voters, and retaining traditional neighborhood polling places even if absentee voting continues to be common.

The 2020 election took its toll on election officials. After a long and trying election season, clerks report high levels of occupational burnout on several measures. In addition, a significant number of clerks report receiving more threatening or hostile messages than in previous presidential election cycles, especially in larger cities.

The survey shows more evidence of “status quo bias,” the tendency of officials is to keep practices as they are. Even after the tumult of the 2020 election cycles, a sizable share of clerks continue to oppose the opportunity to process absentee ballots before election day, resist handing over responsibilities to county clerks, and do not wish to do more public education.

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