MILWAUKEE — The Wisconsin Elections Commission website shows more than 17,000 Milwaukee voters have already returned their absentee ballots for next week’s spring general election. It's a bill that would have allowed local election clerks to get an early start on counting absentee ballots stalled last month after it didn’t pass the Wisconsin Senate.
Mail-in absentee ballots often arrive at Milwaukee’s central counting location weeks before the election, but Wisconsin law says votes cannot be processed or counted until Election Day. Republican lawmakers decided that won’t be changing ahead of this year’s key elections.
In the most recent governor and presidential elections, Wisconsin waited on absentee results from the state’s largest cities until the early morning following Election Day, leading to claims that were proven false in recounts and in court that the 2020 election was stolen in the middle of the night.
Let’s go ‘360’ to hear from the Milwaukee Election Commission about how this early counting bill would have alleviated delayed outcomes in future elections; a Menomonee Falls Republican shares why she voted against the proposal due to security concerns; and two local voters share whether they think a head start is warranted.
Veronica Aldape is a Milwaukee Democrat who’s been voting absentee-by-mail since the pandemic hit. She supports allowing absentee ballots to be counted early, including her own.
“I think it would be even more secure to get those counts started prior and be able to get that done and over with, so that people could see that voting is important and it’s being tallied up and it’s being taken care of, and that the citizens are taking the vote seriously,” Aldape said.
Several Republicans including former President Donald Trump called foul on Milwaukee’s central count after the city’s 169,000 absentee ballots in the 2020 presidential election were added to the state's totals shortly after 3 a.m., flipping the swing state from Trump to Biden.
“This could be stolen, that was my first thought, that this is a problem,” said Mequon Republican Todd Allan.
Allen says he supports letting municipal clerks start processing absentee ballots early at central count locations under one condition.
“As long as both sides have a seat at the table it can help move things along, it can help get people in a better position to know the outcome of this vote,” he said.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 37 states allow election officials to begin processing absentee ballots prior to the election, including neighboring Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota.
Milwaukee Election Commission Executive Director Clair Woodall-Vogg isn’t pleased Wisconsin won’t be joining the majority anytime soon.
“I think it creates a lot of frustration amongst the public and a lot of suspicion when they go to bed,” she said. “They see that there’s 100 percent of the polling places having reported and then they wake up the next morning and learn that Milwaukee or Green Bay’s results have changed the outcome of the election. It’s nothing new.”
The Milwaukee Election Commission has been pushing lawmakers to change state law for years to allow municipalities with central count locations to start counting absentee ballots prior to Election Day.
“I really believe if we are able to start processing the day before, we will be caught up when we start on Election Day morning and then we’re really just processing ballots that are being brought in by voters and ballots that are being delivered by the mail,” Woodall-Vogg said.
The bill that passed the Wisconsin Assembly would have required clerks to post updates on the number of absentee ballots they received and when they were tallied. Menomonee Falls Rep. Janel Brandtjen was one of three GOP ‘no’ votes in the Assembly, fearing the potential of leaked results.
“It’s about having a secure process and having a safe process, not having a fast process,” Rep. Brandtjen told TMJ4 News.
Senate Republicans opted not to take a vote on the Assembly’s bill after hearing fierce opposition from GOP leaders and voters. It was a decision Rep. Brandtjen applauded.
“It’s more than a ballot dump,” she said. “I’m telling you that if we have the ability to actually get the information from the machines, you would have people that have information about who and what the voter numbers were the day before.”
Election leaders say late night counting won’t be as much of an issue next Tuesday as it will be in the November election, when much higher turnout is expected to decide who wins the governor and U.S. Senate races.