Confusion could reign in Wisconsin on Election Day when posted results from the closely watched battleground state appear to be complete but don’t include thousands of absentee ballots still being counted, members of the state’s bipartisan elections commission said Tuesday.
The commission voted unanimously to recommend that counties make clear when posting election results how many absentee ballots are outstanding. The guidance approved Tuesday was being sent to election clerks two weeks before the election.
Most places in Wisconsin count all of their ballots, including absentees, at the polling place. But in 39 communities, including the state’s largest city of Milwaukee, ballots can also be counted at a central location rather than at polling places. In those municipalities, initial reports from a precinct won’t include the absentees, which can lead to a severe undercounting of ballots cast.
In Milwaukee, absentee ballots can only be reported once they have all been counted. Given the high number of absentee ballots this year, those results aren’t expected until late into the night, or early in the morning on Nov. 4.
“We’ve got to do something so we don’t have confusion here,” said Commissioner Dean Knudson, a Republican on the state elections commission, which is evenly divided among Republicans and Democrats.
Municipalities that use central count are required by state law to post the number of ballots that have been returned by the closing hour on Election Day. The commission on Tuesday asked counties to make clear, when posting results, how many absentee ballots were still outstanding.
That is better than waiting to post any results until all of the absentee ballots have been counted, said Republican Commissioner Bob Spindell.
“I don’t think we should keep the country on the edge of its seat in terms of what’s happening,” he said.
In most elections, only about 6% of ballots cast are absentee. But this year, because of the coronavirus pandemic, a record-high number of ballots are being cast absentee. As of Tuesday, more than 915,000 absentee ballots had been returned out of 1.4 million requested. That is 30% of the total ballots cast in 2016.
Elections officials have predicted that as many as 2 million of total ballots cast will be absentee. Tuesday marked the beginning of in-person early voting in Wisconsin.
The memo to clerks approved by the commission Tuesday also makes clear that for any absentee ballot to be counted, it must be received by the close of polls on Election Day at 8 p.m. That includes any ballot left in a drop box. Elections officials must collect those ballots in time for them to be counted as received by the close of polls, the memo said.
The U.S. Supreme Court is considering a lawsuit that seeks to extend the deadline for counting absentee ballots received by Nov. 9.