‘Checks and balances’: Inside the life cycle of a Wisconsin absentee ballot

President Donald Trump claims widespread fraud in states including Wisconsin. Elections officials say numerous safeguards make that nearly impossible.
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Nearly 2 million Wisconsin residents voted absentee in this election, depositing their ballots in the mail, in a drop box or using early in-person voting sites.
Claire DeRosa/ Wisconsin Watch

By Nora Eckert

Wisconsin Watch

This article is made possible through Votebeat, a nonpartisan reporting project covering local election integrity and voting access.

A week after the Nov. 3 election, Wendy Helgeson said she still was being jolted awake by dreams of sorting through ballots.

The head of the Wisconsin Municipal Clerks Association and a clerk in the town of Greenville is one of 1,850 municipal clerks who have grappled with the stressful realities of this year’s election, from a surge in absentee votes to abundant falsehoods about election results. While many aspects of this election cycle are different from previous years, Helgeson said she feels confident in the veracity of the results.

“With the checks and balances in place, it would be really hard to try to commit fraud and then get away with it, ultimately,” Helgeson said.

Wisconsin is one of a handful of states that prohibit election workers from processing ballots before 7 a.m. on Election Day. In municipalities facing a mountain of absentee ballots, such as Milwaukee, this meant that some workers stayed at their posts for close to 20 hours.

In spite of these difficulties — and facing a state split almost equally down the middle by party — experts say Wisconsin election officials handled the election with integrity.

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Election workers certify that voters have filled out their absentee ballot envelopes correctly, including their signature, witness signature and witness address. Ballots can be rejected if these fields aren’t filled, although workers are allowed to fill in the witness address if they can locate it in their database.

“The result of the election was not terribly different from four years ago; it went to the Democrats rather than the Republicans, but Wisconsin remains a narrowly divided state,” said Barry Burden, director of the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “I think election officials managed to operate in that highly partisan environment quite well.”

But President Donald Trump’s campaign insists Wisconsin’s election was tainted by illegal activities. On Wednesday, it sent $3 million to the Wisconsin Elections Commission to pay for a recount of ballots in Dane and Milwaukee counties — two places where voters went heavily for former Vice President Joe Biden.

In a statement, the campaign alleged that officials “illegally altered absentee ballots, illegally issued absentee ballots, and illegal advice (was) given by government officials allowing Wisconsin’s Voter ID laws to be circumvented.”

The lifecycle of a ballot

Tracking the journey of an absentee ballot — from applying for the ballot to it being fed into a tabulator — reveals the myriad of safeguards against fraud built into Wisconsin’s election system. There are small differences in how election workers process ballots from one municipality to the next, but for the most part the procedures are consistent statewide.

Take the journey of a ballot cast by a Greenville resident, for example.

After the resident applies for a ballot and provides the needed documentation, the clerk’s office sends her the specific ballot for her reporting unit, a geographical designation for reporting election results. A reporting unit can be one ward or a group of wards, according to the Wisconsin Elections Commission.

Whether the voter deposits her ballot in the mail or in Greenville’s dropbox, the ballot finds its way to the clerk’s office. The Wisconsin Elections Commission has issued safety guidelines for the 500-plus drop boxes in the state.

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Absentee ballots and envelopes are securely transported using labeled bags. Election inspectors record the seal number on each bag to ensure the chain of custody is maintained. After the election, ballots are required to be stored for 22 months.

Short of opening the ballots, Helgeson does everything possible before Election Day so that by 7 a.m. her team is ready to go. After workers verify that the voter signed the envelope and included a witness signature and address, the ballot is stored in a vault, organized alphabetically by voter name and reporting unit.  On Election Day, some ballots are counted at the Greenville Town Hall and others go to the second Greenville polling place, depending on the ward where the voter lives.

Vote counting begins on Election Day

While 59 percent of Wisconsinites who voted this year opted to cast absentee ballots before Election Day, they still had a presence of sorts at the polls.

“Your envelope acts as a person,” Helgeson explained. “Our poll workers need to physically read your name and address aloud for every single absentee ballot as if you were there.”

Helgeson said election observers, who are allowed at all polling places in the state, can oversee this part of the process.

An election worker then numbers each envelope and tracks that in the absentee ballot log and poll book. In Greenville, workers also put a red “A” — for “absentee” — next to the voter’s information in the poll book.

“The poll book is like the Bible,” Helgeson said, adding that it includes all registered voters in the municipality.

If a ballot is damaged in any way, whether someone spilled coffee on it or if there is a printing error — such as the one in Calumet and Outagamie counties that rendered thousands of ballots unreadable by machines — the ballot must be duplicated by hand. Two election workers, preferably one from each major party, are involved in this process. The workers label the damaged ballot and a new ballot with an identifying number and copy votes to the new ballot, which is then fed into a tabulator.

Once a group of envelopes is numbered, recorded and opened, they are sealed in a secure bag, by reporting unit. Election inspectors record the seal numbers on the bags.

After ballots are fed into a tabulator, they’re sealed in separate bags, and the inspector records the seal number. These records help maintain the chain of custody, a system of documentation to ensure ballots are stored and transported securely.

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Absentee ballots are processed at a polling place or central count facility starting at 7 a.m. on Election Day. The name and address of each voter is read off by election workers before they’re tabulated by voting machines.

If voters decide to cast their ballot in person on Election Day, they fill it out and then feed it into the tabulator themselves, Helgeson said.

After workers close the polls in Greenville, the tabulator prints what is called a “tape” page of results, which is automatically sent to Outagamie County. Then, the chief inspector calls to verify that the printed results match what the county received.

This step in the process was different at Milwaukee’s Central Count, because the high-speed tabulators are not connected to the internet. After all ballots were counted, Milwaukee Election Commission Executive Director Claire Woodall-Vogg manually transported the results, on encrypted flash drives, to the county to be imported.  (The temporary misplacement of one of those drives fueled conspiracy theories of tampering.)

Finally, the ballots and envelopes are transported to the county building and retained for 22 months.

Some communities use central counting

While many absentee ballots are counted at a polling place, such as in Greenville, in 39 municipalities, absentee ballots are shepherded to a centralized location called Central Count.

Milwaukee processed more than 169,000 absentee ballots at Central Count from 7 a.m. on Election Day to 4 a.m. on Nov. 4, when results were released.

Luke Knapp was one of the workers who sorted ballots there on Election Day. After spending 19 hours with box upon box of ballots from the Walker’s Point neighborhood, he needed a boost.

“I think I had like three sodas and I never drink soda,” he laughed.

Knapp’s duties were similar to those of election workers at polling places. He and his partner were given a bucket packed with groups of ballots bound with rubber bands. They first checked each envelope to ensure it had the voter’s signature, a witness signature and address.

If either the voter’s signature or witness signature are missing, the ballot is rejected, Woodall-Vogg said. If the witness address field is missing, election workers can locate the witness in their database and fill in the address in red ink — a process being challenged by the Trump campaign. Woodall-Vogg said election workers, including herself, called voters on Election Day to ensure they filled out the correct witness address.

After Knapp checked those three fields, he and his partner took the batch of envelopes to a station in the back of the room where two other election workers ran them through a machine that sliced them open.

Workers kept a record of the processed ballots by numbering the envelope and ballot and placing the same number next to the voter’s name in an absentee ballot log, Woodall-Vogg said.

After the ballots were recorded, Knapp and his partner flattened them so they would go smoothly through the tabulating machines. Finally, they brought the box to one of 10 stations with tabulators, where workers fed them in to be counted.

Workers at Central Count were given vibrant yellow fans to raise if they had a question, but Knapp said he rarely used his, except for a few stray ballots that were from different wards.

Knapp has been given days off of work from his job as a legislative fiscal analyst for the city of Milwaukee to serve as an election worker. The one difference from the last few primaries he’s worked? This time, Wisconsin was in the national spotlight.

“It kind of felt like being in a fishbowl in some ways,” he said.

Safeguards against fraud

Kevin Kennedy was Wisconsin’s chief election official for more than 33 years and has since worked as an elections consultant. In that time, he’s been involved in two statewide recounts: one for the state Supreme Court race in 2011 and a referendum in 1989.

Through his decades involved in elections, he said voter fraud is talked about far more than it happens.

Election worker Josh Del Colle counts ballots at the Milwaukee Central Count location after the polls had closed for the evening, on Nov. 3, 2020. Wisconsin is among just a handful of states where officials are not allowed to process absentee ballots until Election Day.

Election worker Josh Del Colle counts ballots at the Milwaukee Central Count location after the polls had closed for the evening, on Nov. 3, 2020. Wisconsin is among just a handful of states where officials are not allowed to process absentee ballots until Election Day.

“The number of cases has always been very, very small. And there’s a lot of means to detect it,” Kennedy said.

Take the registration process, for example. When a voter submits a valid form of ID with the municipal clerk or on the MyVote website, the information is logged in WisVote, a statewide voter registration system introduced in 2016, which updated earlier systems.

When the clerk enters the voter’s information into WisVote, the system cross references with several databases, including from the Division of Motor Vehicles and Social Security, which ensures that when voters register, they are who they say they are. The system also links with the state Department of Health Services’ Office of Vital Records and the Department of Corrections databases — which flag if the voter’s information matches someone who has died or committed a felony.

If the voter submits a ballot but dies before it is processed on Election Day, the vote can’t be counted under state law. And a person convicted of a felony who is on some type of community supervision is not yet eligible to vote.

The WisVote system is likely the “biggest deterrent for voter fraud,” Kennedy said.

Wisconsin is also part of the Electronic Registration Information Center, a collection of 30 states and the District of Columbia, which identifies when voters have moved and registered in a new state. The system also can flag if someone is trying to vote from two different states.

On Election Day, transparency is key for combatting accusations of fraud, Kennedy said.

In addition to the dozens of election observers allowed at Milwaukee’s Central Count, the facility was also live streamed for all to see.

Suspicion sparks investigation

Still, when a surge of Democratic votes vaulted Joe Biden ahead of Donald Trump early Wednesday morning — when Milwaukee’s results came in at 4 a.m.— false claims started swirling about “ballot drops.”

Just a few days after the election, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos directed the Committee on Campaigns and Elections to investigate the outcome of the election.

“With concerns surfacing about mail-in ballot dumps and voter fraud, Wisconsin citizens deserve to know their vote counted,” Vos said in a statement.

Committee chairman Rep. Ron Tusler, R-Harrison, said he received thousands of messages from voters citing concerns with the election. He said the committee will dig into those concerns, ranging from limited access for election observers to allegations of ballot harvesting, the practice of third parties submitting absentee ballots. Tusler’s team is less than a week into the process, and he said he wouldn’t be surprised if it extended into 2021.

“We’ve got to bring legitimacy to this election. If there was something nefarious that had happened, we need to look into it, we need to get to the bottom of it,” Tusler said. “If some of these concerns are more perception than reality, then it’s really important for our committee to provide that information to folks.”

Tusler said he trusts and relies upon the work the state Elections Commission does to uphold election integrity but sees it as an important role of the Assembly to verify and check that work.

Election workers count ballots at the Milwaukee Central Count location after the polls had closed for the evening, on Nov. 3, 2020. Workers processed 169,000 absentee ballots at Central Count from 7 a.m. on Nov. 3 to 4 a.m. on Nov. 4, when results were released.

Election workers count ballots at the Milwaukee Central Count location after the polls had closed for the evening, on Nov. 3, 2020. Workers processed 169,000 absentee ballots at Central Count from 7 a.m. on Nov. 3 to 4 a.m. on Nov. 4, when results were released.

If Tusler’s committee does uncover fraud, it will be a rare find: Vote fraud is exceedingly rare in Wisconsin and elsewhere.

For example, there were 18 cases of possible fraud — out of 2.67 million votes — reported to the Wisconsin Elections Commission from the 2018 general election. The commission noted that number may not be comprehensive since it only includes cases reported to the agency. The reports were mostly of voters who attempted to vote twice: both absentee and in person or in two municipalities. Voter fraud is a felony, carrying a fine up to $10,000 and 3 1/2 years in prison.

Auditing the results

In addition to the safeguards built into each step of a ballot’s journey, a series of post-election checks and statewide audits are baked into the state’s practices.

The first check comes after election workers finish processing all the ballots in their polling place or Central Count. They confirm that the number of voters marked in the poll books matches the number of ballots counted by the machine. This ensures that no extra ballots slipped into the count and that no ballots were left out.

“Wisconsin election officials do a fabulous, almost perfect job,” with this process, said Karen McKim, coordinator at Wisconsin Election Integrity, a group of volunteer citizens.

The Wisconsin Elections Commission also randomly selects at least 5% of reporting units to undergo a voting system audit in which at least two workers hand tally the results from ballots and compare them to the results from voting equipment.

While state law requires the voting equipment audit, McKim said it has shortcomings. One of them is it fails to take into account voter intent. For example, if a voting machine is programmed to reject ballots in which the voter circled a candidate’s name instead of filling in the bubble next to the name, the current audit would not count those votes, she said.

The solution? McKim suggests an outcome-confirming audit, often called a risk-limiting audit, a practice required by law in several states, including Colorado, Virginia and Rhode Island. It has several technical differences from the audits conducted in Wisconsin, but McKim said it’s simplest to think of it as an exit poll. Similar to interviewing random voters, auditors review a random assortment of ballots and take voter intent into consideration. For example, ballots in which voters circle a candidate’s name instead of filling in the adjacent bubble would count.

Currently, state law does not require such audits, and the Elections Commission does not have the authority to require them, said Reid Magney, spokesman for the agency. Even if some municipalities wished to implement a risk-limiting audit, experts caution that it wouldn’t be effective unless it’s done for the entire state, he added.

Magney noted that since 2018, the commission has provided funding to support counties that want to implement deeper audits.

An election worker holds up a fan, signifying that she needs assistance, as ballots are tallied at the Milwaukee Central Count location after the polls had closed, on Nov. 3, 2020. Milwaukee is one of 39 communities that count absentee ballots at a centralized location.

An election worker holds up a fan, signifying that she needs assistance, as ballots are tallied at the Milwaukee Central Count location after the polls had closed, on Nov. 3, 2020. Milwaukee is one of 39 communities that count absentee ballots at a centralized location.

When safeguards become barriers

Some experts say that there is a much greater threat to Wisconsin’s democratic process than potential voter fraud: voter suppression. Kennedy said it has become more difficult to vote in the state since he started working in the field over 30 years ago. In the past decade, the Republican-run Legislature has enacted one of the strictest voter ID laws in the nation, reduced the window for early voting and made it harder for college students to vote.

“When all the legislative changes were proposed in 2011 and 2013, the mantra from the Legislature and the governor was ‘We’re making it easier to vote and harder to cheat.’ And the truth was, though, you’re making it harder to vote and it’s just as hard to cheat as it has always been,” Kennedy said.

A Wisconsin Watch analysis found that the number of raw votes cast in predominantly Black wards in Milwaukee decreased about 11% from 2016. Experts say the pandemic’s grip on the city and the overall distrust of voting by mail in communities of color may have contributed to this decrease.

Said Woodall-Vogg: “In my eight years with the (Milwaukee) Election Commission, I have seen far more confusion, misinformation and mistrust in the process that was created by Wisconsin’s constantly changing election laws — far more than I’ve seen any evidence of fraud.”

Two sources in this story are donors to Wisconsin Watch: Reid Magney donated $10 and Karen McKim and her husband donated $2,120. The nonprofit Wisconsin Watch (wisconsinwatch.org) collaborates with WPR, PBS Wisconsin, other news media and the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by Wisconsin Watch do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.