Addressing misinformation: Why it takes so long to count absentee ballots

MADISON, Wis. — After rampant misinformation in the last election, News 3 Now is getting ahead of inaccurate claims of voter fraud this election season.

A recent USA Today/Suffolk University poll finds 62 percent of Republicans say they’re worried the midterm results could be manipulated, compared to 76 percent of Democrats who say they trust the count to be fair and accurate.

Those numbers have been used in looking back on claims of fraud and the actual numbers that may or may not back them up.

The nonpartisan State Elections Commission did find fraud in 2020 but says it was “on par” with previous elections. Officials charged 24 people in 12 counties with voter fraud in the 2020 general election. Of those 24, 16 were allegedly felons who voted.

Specific cases include a Racine County man who admitted to ordering absentee ballots for other voters without their permission. Harry Wait said he used the “My Vote Wisconsin” website to point out flaws with the system.

Another more recent case of fraud stems from a former Milwaukee election official who now faces a felony charge for illegally requesting absentee ballots. Kimberly Zapata served as the deputy director for Milwaukee’s election commission until she got fired for using the state’s public-facing website to request special “military” absentee ballots. She says she, too, was trying to expose holes in the system. Zapata could face up to five years in prison and a $13,000 fine for all four counts.

Ultimately, a nonpartisan audit of Wisconsin’s 2020 presidential election found no evidence of widespread fraud, and a Republican lawmaker concluded it showed that elections in the state were “safe and secure,” while also recommending dozens of changes to how elections are run.

One of the biggest claims in 2020 stemmed from alleged “ballot dumping” in Milwaukee. A wave of votes was counted in between 2 and 4 a.m., most of them for Democrats, sparking claims of voter fraud.

We asked the experts to explain what actually happened in this case.

According to Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigative reporter Mary Spicuzza, state law requires cities to wait until Election Day when polls open to count ballots, including absentees. Furthermore, early and absentee voters tend to vote Democratic. Those two factors taken together explain why ballot totals were coming in late and blue.

“That has led to some misunderstandings, misconceptions, conspiracy theories, unfortunately, about what’s really going on,” Spicuzza said. “But what’s really going on is ballots are being counted and ballots take a while.”

Marquette Lubar Center Fellow and Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel contributor, Craig Gilbert said this election, though, could look a little different, at least in the city of Milwaukee. Officials there say they’re going to be able to count the early votes – mail and absentee – earlier in the evening. Depending on the results themselves, that could mean we could know the outcome sooner.