Despite concerns that record-setting absentee voting in Wisconsin’s spring primary would overburden local clerks and leave some votes uncounted, the percentage of rejected or returned ballots in the April vote was consistent with previous elections, according to new data.
A report provided Monday by the Wisconsin Elections Commission found that of the more than 1.3 million absentee ballots sent to voters ahead of the April 7 primary, nearly 89% were returned and counted.
What’s more, a federal judge’s six-day extension of the deadline to file an absentee ballot — issued in response to a lawsuit seeking to postpone the vote amid concerns that in-person voting during the COVID-19 pandemic could threaten voters’ safety — resulted in an additional 79,000 ballots being counted.
“Most ballots were returned prior to Election Day, but nearly 7% arrived in the window between Election Day and the court-ordered deadline,” according to the report.
Absentee ballots and early voting accounted for more than 70% of all votes cast in the presidential primary and spring election.
All told, more than 120,000 absentee ballots were requested but not returned and the remaining roughly 23,000, or about 1.8% of all absentee ballots, were returned and rejected.
For comparison, about 1.5% of absentee ballots were rejected in the 2019 spring election, while spring votes in Wisconsin netted rejection rates between 2% and 2.5% from 2016 through 2018, according to WEC.
While the percentage of rejected ballots was comparable to previous elections, the overall number was considerably higher in the April 7 vote. Just fewer than 2,500 ballots were returned and rejected in the 2019 spring election, compared with more than 20,000 in last month’s vote.
Less than a week before the election, U.S. District Judge William Conley rejected calls to push back the election. Conley wrote that while holding the election as planned was “ill-advised,” he did not have the authority to postpone it.
However, Conley did push back the deadline for filing absentee ballots to April 13, nearly a week after the election, and extended the deadline to request an absentee ballot by a day.
A total of 2,659 ballots, or about 0.22%, were rejected for arriving after the April 13 deadline.
Wisconsin’s election officials are preparing for an even larger demand for absentee ballots in the November presidential election.
“We are already working on improvements including the use of U.S. (Postal Service) intelligent barcodes to help voters and clerks track ballots,” WEC administrator Meagan Wolfe said in a statement. “We are also making it easier for clerks to process the higher volumes of absentee ballot requests we anticipate in future elections.”
Also on Monday, a federal lawsuit filed by advocates for individuals with disabilities and minority voters aims to force the hiring of additional poll workers ahead of the August primary and November presidential election. The lawsuit also seeks to have an absentee ballot mailed to every registered voter in the state.
A total of 71 people got COVID-19 after voting in person or working at the polls during Wisconsin’s April 7 election, a state official said Friday. However, two new studies present a mixed picture on whether the election directly contributed to the spread of the coronavirus.
The WEC on Wednesday will consider staff recommendations for spending $7.3 million in federal CARES Act grant funds to support voters and local election officials for remaining elections this year.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.