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RACINE, Wisc — The United States Postal Service says that domestic deliveries of mail usually arrive in 1-3 business days. That’s not always the case, as is becoming clear to many of Wisconsin’s registered voters who requested absentee ballots that never arrived.
The majority of voters who requested ballots still received them, some as quickly as within two days of being requested across the county. Others requested their ballots during the third week of March or earlier, and municipal clerks had them in the mail before the end of the month, but they never arrived.
Fabi Maldonado, a Racine County Board supervisor, posted on Facebook April 9 that “My dad received his absentee ballot yesterday,” the day after the deadline. The posting included an angry-face emoji.
On Election Day, Mount Pleasant Village Clerk Stephanie Kohlhagen told The Journal Times: “It’s out of our hands and up to the postmaster,” to deliver the mail. “I don’t know what else I could do,” she continued, saying that few requested ballots took more than a day to be mailed, and the last requests came in on April 3 — four days before polls opened.
Racine City Clerk Tara Coolidge said April 9 that all ballots requested the week before the election were in the mail the next day. And in mid-March, city staff was at most three days behind on requests, in part because they were receiving an unprecedented 1,500 requests per day, Coolidge said.
That left potentially hundreds of registered voters in Racine County and thousands statewide — no one is sure of the true total — who never got their ballots.
Some voters took the risk and went to the polls April 7, while others stayed at home and gave up their constitutional right to vote.
Now state authorities and national leaders are investigating what went wrong.
The Milwaukee Election Commission said April 8 that it is requesting an investigation into the USPS’ failure to deliver ballots, and the Wisconsin Elections Commission soon followed suit.
“Like the Milwaukee Elections Commission, the Wisconsin Elections Commission is gathering information about absentee ballot delivery issues,” Reid Magney, public relations officer for the WEC, said in an email April 8. “We want to learn from what happened so we can make sure everyone who requests an absentee ballot from their municipal clerk’s office gets it and is able to vote.”
Then on April 9, in a bipartisan letter, Inspector General of the U.S. Postal Service Tammy Whitcomb and Wisconsin senators Tammy Baldwin and Ron Johnson wrote: “Unfortunately, there have been numerous accounts from the state that USPS failed to fulfill that critical function for some voters,” according to reporting from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
A spokesman for the Postal Service said it still doesn’t know what happened.
“I don’t have an answer for you at this moment. We are looking into this issue,” USPS Communications Specialist Robert Sheehan said in an email April 8.
A progressive Madison-based research and communications group founded in January, A Better Wisconsin Together, has launched a website, WheresMyBallotWI.org, where people who requested a ballot that never arrived can share what happened in an online form as the nonprofit tries to figure out the scope of the problem.
Misplaced Tubs and More Questions
44,181 Racine County residents requested ballots for the election April 7, but only 28,231 of those ballots had been returned before Election Day. Ballots were still being processed April 8, with the total returned in Racine County rising to 33,407 by the morning, and processing is expected to continue throughout the week before results of the election are released after 4 p.m. on April 13, but many didn’t arrive in mailboxes statewide. It appears to be a statewide problem. But what happened to all the ballots that weren’t delivered is still unclear.
“At this point, no one knows if that problem [is] widespread or narrow,” Jerry Deschane, executive director of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, said in an email.
Three “large tubs of absentee ballots” intended for voters in Oshkosh and Appleton were found the day after the election at a mail processing center in Milwaukee, state Sen. Dan Feyen (R-Fond du Lac) said April 8 via Twitter.
State Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, who represents Oshkosh, said in a statement April 8: “It’s not surprising there would be absentee ballot issues given the surge in demand and chaos of having an election that did not need to, and should not have been held during this public health emergency.”
A worker unloads packages onto a conveyor belt at the USPS Merrifield processing and distribution center in Merrifield, Va., in December 2018. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News)
Hintz continued by saying that Wisconsin should implement a mail-only election throughout the duration of the pandemic. “I’m disappointed that I, and hundreds of my constituents, were unable to vote or were forced to risk their health and the health of others. It will be important to get answers on why and how this happened. The Wisconsin Elections Commission and the Department of Justice should investigate this and any other irregularities reported from Tuesday’s elections.”
Had voters been allowed to submit their ballots until April 13, as had been ordered by U.S. District Court Judge William Conley on April 2 but overruled by a 5-4 vote by the Supreme Court of the United States, there still might have been time to get those ballots delivered and counted. Up until the day before the election, municipal clerks had been telling voters they would have an extra week to submit their votes because of COVID-19, a promise retroactively rendered inaccurate by the Supreme Court.
“Generally speaking, any last-minute changes will create confusion, and confusion will lead to mistakes. Yes, it’s likely that the legal changes that occurred resulted in at least one voter out there missing his or her opportunity to vote,” Deschane said.
Other problems with USPS appeared in Fox Point in Milwaukee County, where absentee ballots were reportedly sent back to Fox Point Village Hall repeatedly without explanation, according to published reports.
Deschane added: “Local election clerks across the state were faced with an unprecedented surge of absentee ballot requests. Their response and ability to process those ballots was nothing short of heroic. To have that work go to waste because of mailing errors is almost as great a tragedy as the votes will not be counted due to the errors.”
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