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WEC takes first step toward rules for drop boxes, absentee ballot information
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WEC takes first step toward rules for drop boxes, absentee ballot information

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The state’s embattled Elections Commission on Wednesday unanimously approved several recommendations made in a recent nonpartisan audit, including initial steps for administrative rules on ballot drop boxes and what missing information clerks can fill in on absentee ballot envelopes.

The nearly 11-hour Wisconsin Elections Commission meeting was the agency’s first since the Legislative Audit Bureau released its October report that did not find any evidence of widespread fraud in the state’s 2020 election, but did make 48 recommendations to the Legislature and commission for how to improve elections.

A small percentage of voters and witnesses made mistakes on their absentee ballot certificates in 2020. Here are some examples of the kinds of errors that were either allowed or corrected by the clerk in order to permit the ballot to be counted.

While the commission faced a sharp increase in deadlocked 3-3 votes last year, the large majority of votes taken Wednesday were unanimous.

“I think that’s remarkable and something we can be proud of,” said Republican commissioner Robert Spindell, who last month said he’s “probably responsible” for many of the commission’s split votes last year.

The commission’s votes Wednesday begin the administrative rule-making process, which can take as long as 13 months to complete and requires approval from the governor and a Republican-controlled rules committee. The commission will vote in future meetings on specific rule proposals.

The commission voted 6-0 to direct staff to sketch out proposed rules for what missing information clerks can fill in on absentee ballot envelopes. Staff will create one draft based on guidance the commission unanimously approved in 2016, which has been in place since, and another that staff deems the next best alternative. The commission plans to take up the drafts on March 9.

In another 6-0 vote, the board directed staff to draft rules regulating the use of ballot drop boxes based on current guidance. That guidance was challenged in a lawsuit last month by Republican gubernatorial candidate and former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch.

Many municipalities, including Madison, used drop boxes last year to mitigate spread of COVID-19.

A previous motion brought by Republican commissioners to limit the number of ballot drop boxes that cities can use failed on a 3-3 split vote, with Democratic appointees opposed.

The commission did not take action on a recommendation from the Audit Bureau to specify in administrative rules when election clerks should not send special voting deputies to nursing homes. Commission chair Ann Jacobs and fellow Democratic commissioner Mark Thomsen said that guidance is no longer in place.

The commission voted in March 2020 to direct clerks that they need not send poll workers into nursing homes to assist with absentee voting after many were turned away due to the pandemic. That decision was made in public, but has since drawn criticism from several state Republicans after Republican Racine County Sheriff Christopher Schmaling called for five members of the commission — two Republican and three Democratic appointees — to be charged with crimes for waiving the special voting deputy requirement.

Audit criticized

Several members of the commission raised concern that the Audit Bureau’s report was published without giving the agency a chance to respond or correct errors.

“It’s uncharacteristic of an agency that has a well-earned reputation that they actually acted in an unprofessional manner in this case,” said commissioner Dean Knudson, a Republican. “That’s disappointing.”

Ann Jacobs


Jacobs said the manner in which the Audit Bureau handled the report was “either complete gross incompetence or an attempt to intentionally sabotage the work of the commission.”

The commission voted unanimously to draft a response to the Audit Bureau’s report that will include all inaccuracies in the report. The commission will review the response at its January meeting.

The Audit Bureau has said the report was not provided before it was published because the Elections Commission can only convene in closed session for specified purposes, none of which pertain to reviewing draft audit reports. The Audit Bureau also did not provide a copy of the report to the 179 clerks contacted during the auditing process, as doing so would compromise the report’s confidentiality.

Much of the Audit Bureau’s review noted instances where statutes do not make specific recommendations related to election matters. In other instances, the report found that the Elections Commission failed to create rules governing certain practices, such as the requirements for training voting deputies or election inspectors.

Despite finding no evidence of widespread fraud, several state Republicans have used the Audit Bureau’s report as a cudgel for repeated attacks against the commission for how the 2020 election was conducted. Some of those lawmakers, including Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, have called for Elections Commission administrator Meagan Wolfe to resign from her post — which she has refused.

Other votes

The commission voted to affirm that guidance issued last year ahead of the April election allowing local officials to move polling places amid the COVID-19 pandemic is now moot. The Audit Bureau said the guidance did not align with state law, which does not include such an allowance.

The commission also voted to approve motions to notify the Audit Bureau that it has complied or is currently complying with some recommendations made in the report, including maintaining access to voters’ electronic signatures compiled by the state Department of Transportation and conducting regular reviews for potential duplicate voter registration records.

While the Audit Bureau’s report found 70 instances of duplicate voter registration records, further analysis by commission staff found that 68 pairs could have easily been confirmed as the result of human error. The commission found evidence of possible double voting associated with one of the remaining pairs, but that case had been identified by the municipality involved and referred for criminal prosecution months earlier.

In another vote, the commission approved a motion in response to the Audit Bureau’s recommendation that the Elections Commission renew and/or update data-sharing agreements with the state Department of Health Services and Department of Corrections for identifying if a registered voter is alive or deceased.

The commission voted unanimously that, while there is no statutory requirement for such data-sharing agreements, the commission is working to execute an agreement with the DHS and will update its agreement with the DOC.

The commission also approved directing staff to draft scope statements related to Audit Bureau recommendations regarding clerk training, use of the statewide voter registration database WisVote and directing cities to provide election officials’ mailing addresses to notify them if required training has not been completed leading up to an election.

The commission also voted to make publicly available a calendar detailing the annual schedule for when the commission receives information from the Electronic Registration Information Center.


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