Wisconsin's vote-by-mail looked bad. It was actually worse

Back on April 7th, Wisconsin held the first in-person primary election since the pandemic outbreak began. Well, it was at least partially “in-person” but the state attempted at the last minute to turn it into some sort of hybrid, combining a smaller number of in-person polling places with the option to request mail-in ballots. And the results were predictably chaotic. There was confusion regarding where and how to vote and the massive increase in mail-in voting meant the results were delayed far longer than normal. In short, it was a mess.

But at least it all got sorted out, right? Not so fast there, folks. An investigation was launched by the postal service’s Inspector General, with the results only being released this week. And as it turns out, things were even worse than they first appeared. There were extensive problems with the mail-in ballots, with many either arriving too late to be counted, going to the wrong destination or never even making it to the voters at all. By the time all was said and done, it’s not entirely clear if they even produced any valid winners. (Milwaukee Journal-Sentinal)

The U.S. Postal Service has identified hundreds of absentee ballots for the April election that never made it to voters or couldn’t be counted because of postmark problems, a new report says.

The post office’s internal watchdog chalked the problems up to receiving outgoing absentee ballots at the last moment from election officials, inconsistent postmarking of ballots and one mail carrier’s inattention to getting absentee ballots to voters in Fox Point.

The 17-page report by the postal service’s inspector general accounts for some but not all of the problems that marred voting for the April election for state Supreme Court. Nearly 1 million people turned to mail voting because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Digging into the details of the IG’s report, this was more than just a case of a few random errors. In Fox Valley, they tracked three “mail tubs” full of ballots, totaling nearly 750 of them, that didn’t reach the voters in time for them to be legally filled out and returned. That debacle seems to have involved the postal service’s use of a third-party vendor to handle some of the workload. They didn’t deliver the ballots to the local post offices for delivery until 6 pm on the night before the election. And that wasn’t even all of them. The state Election Commission said that the number was closer to 1,600 ballots that failed to arrive in time just from that one district.

In Fox Point (not to be confused with Fox Valley), one mail carrier was found to have taken hundreds of blank ballots and delivered them to the County Election Office rather than to the homes of the voters who requested them. Apparently the address labels all said “Village of Fox Point” in bold letters above the name of the voter, so the carrier because confused. By the time the error was recognized, it was too late to correct the situation.

In Milwaukee, a “significant” number of absentee ballots that had been requested by voters never arrived in the mail. That’s because they were never even printed. The investigation found that this series of errors was caused by a “computer glitch” at the Board of Elections, not the Post Office. This came as scant comfort to all of the voters who were waiting for ballots that never arrived.

I’m not sure precisely what lesson we’re supposed to take away from all of this other than the obvious fact that most states that don’t regularly vote by mail are entirely unprepared to learn how to pull this off on short notice. And the problems aren’t just on the government end or with the Postal Service, either. Voters who are used to going down to their polling place in person and filling out a ballot don’t know how these new procedures are supposed to work. And that’s not a problem you solve in a few weeks or even a few months.

Now take these problems and multiply them by the populations of all the states in the country that don’t vote entirely by mail already. That’s the barrel that we’re staring down for this November if people keep pushing for massive mail-in voting in the general election. What was it that someone was saying recently about the need to ensure the integrity of the election and the public’s confidence in the results? Fasten your seatbelts, kids. We may be hitting a rough stretch of road.