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Lessons learned: Clerks favor counting absentee ballots early


Clerks always are looking for ways to make elections better, said Dave Godek, the Janesville clerk-treasurer, on the day after a big election.

“If you’re not doing that, then I don’t think you’re doing what you should be doing if you’re running an election,” Godek said.

Godek and Rock County Clerk Lisa Tollefson, both tired after a longer-than-usual Election Day, said one thing that could improve Wisconsin elections is an extra day to count absentee votes.

This was an extraordinary election, with the pandemic leading most voters in the county to opt for absentee voting. About 50,000 did so.

Wisconsin law requires vote-counting to begin on Election Day. That meant long hours for pollworkers in Janesville and Beloit on Tuesday.

It also meant people watching results on the county clerk’s website Tuesday night could not tell who was winning any of the races until absentee results were transmitted to the county clerk for online posting.

Janesville’s results arrived at about 11:30 p.m. In previous elections, results were usually clear by 9:30 or earlier.

Godek said pollworkers worked very hard, getting the ballots counted before many other municipalities, and he is proud of them for that, but an extra day would have greatly reduced the pressure.

Anthony Wahl 

AJ Albrecht feeds ballots into a high-speed ballot counter at St. Patrick School in Janesville on Tuesday morning.

Instead, voters had to wait several hours while looking at preliminary vote counts. Those results, posted online, showed some candidates in strong winning positions even though they were destined to lose when the absentee results were added.

DuWayne Severson, for example, was leading Sue Conley for the 44th Assembly District seat by a substantial margin, but Conley ended up winning with 60% of the vote.

The same problem cropped up around the country in the presidential race.

Godek noted increasing public suspicion about elections in recent years. Delays in reporting results only make that worse, he said.

“It would give people more confidence in the system. Anything we can do to take pressure off our election workers, who are working really hard, and add confidence to the system for our residents and voters is a good thing,” Godek said.

The idea was proposed in the state Legislature a few years ago but went nowhere, Godek said.

Tollefson endorses the idea. She noted the city of Janesville did a test for ballot-processing and found with six of the regular vote tabulators, it would take 35 hours to process 25,000 ballots.

Luckily, grant money was available to buy a high-speed counter, and even with some early problems with jamming, the machine allowed pollworkers to finish in about 15 hours.

There might never be so many absentee ballots cast again, Tollefson said, but now that so many people have used them, it’s likely more voters will use them in future elections because they like the convenience.

Tollefson said she would also like the deadline for issuing absentee ballots moved back. Now, anyone can request an absentee ballot through 5 p.m. on the Thursday before the election. Someone requesting one on that day might never see the ballot before Election Day because the only way the ballot can arrive is by mail.

Tollefson said clerks were once authorized to send ballots by email, but that changed with a recent court ruling. Now, only military and overseas voters can get their ballots by email.

Godek and Tollefson said they were pleased with how smoothly elections went and that they could announce final counts before midnight. Both are now thinking about a probable recount in the presidential election.

Tollefson said she was already arranging voting materials for a recount.

Until then, county ballots are kept in a vault, Tollefson said, and other materials are locked up.

A young bike rider makes her way past the Traxler Park lagoon filled with scores of geese basking in the afternoon sun on Wednesday, Nov. 4.

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Walworth County communities to move ahead with shared fire/EMS services

Walworth County voters agreed Tuesday to throw a life preserver to almost all of the communities that floated referendums to better fund emergency services, which have been struggling to stay above water.

Needing all communities to support the endeavor, the villages and towns of Sharon, Darien and Walworth approved a plan to exceed their levy limits to establish and maintain a third-party contract for full-time paramedic-level emergency medical services.

“We’re feeling very good and positive,” said Bruce Vander Veen, chief of the Sharon Fire/EMS Department. “We’ve been humbled and pleasantly surprised by our community support, and we’re anxious to get to work on our program.”

Funding and staffing issues have plagued small fire/EMS departments for years, and community leaders have expressed concern about their ability to respond to emergencies.

Voters Tuesday approved the referendum with these percentages:

  • Village of Sharon: 65%
  • Town of Sharon: 76%
  • Village of Walworth: 59%
  • Town of Walworth: 61%
  • Village of Darien: 67%

The town of Darien did not need to put the question on the ballot because it already has the necessary finances, Vander Veen has said.

He said Wednesday that the six municipalities need to sign an intergovernmental agreement, and then the three departments that cover those areas will work on an operational plan.

That could cover topics such as developing response plans and everyday duties, as well as getting the dispatch center up to speed. The communities might encounter some problems early on because this will be a “growing and learning experience” for everyone, he added.

A contract with Metro Paramedic Services needs to be settled after the intergovernmental agreement, but Vander Veen said “most of the groundwork is done” on the contract.

Vander Veen also said they need to hire six people, although he stressed that the paid-on-call volunteer staff will still be “vitally important.” At his department in Sharon, he said leaders will need to increase incentives for paid-on-call members, such as by raising pay.

“It’s still a job that requires a fair amount of people,” he said. “But this (referendum) should relieve the daily pressure and hopefully relieve the burnout and keep our paid-on-call involved longer.”

The two full-time staffers per shift who will be added as a result of the referendum will be working with everyone else. Vander Veen said he thinks his staff will welcome the assistance.

They have a goal to be ready by Jan. 1.

“We’re trying to hit the ground running,” he said.

Other Walworth County communities that had referendums related to fire/EMS funding saw mixed results.

Fifty-one percent of Elkhorn voters and 60% of town of Sugar Creek voters supported referendums seeking more money “for the purpose of enhanced fire and emergency medical services.”

The town of Geneva, however, did not pass that referendum. Fewer than 45% of voters supported the measure.

Town Chairman Joseph Kopecky could not immediately be reached for comment Wednesday.

Elkhorn City Administrator James Heilman said the town of Geneva must decide how it moves forward.

Even though all the referendums did not pass, the city is still expecting to contract with the town, “But obviously the cost of services will go up, and they’ll have to meet those costs.”

Heilman said it was hard for the city to put together a good public safety program with the resources it had before the referendum. But this change should help response times as the city’s fire department can have “eight people in the house at a given time around the clock.”

“Time matters in public safety more than anything else—well, that and having knowledgeable people on staff,” he said. “There will be substantial benefits to this.”

Obituaries and death notices for Nov. 5, 2020

Patrick M. “Pat” Bucholtz

Karen Helen Caple

Thomas John Heuerman

Lawrence Charles (Harrison) Renaud

Nicholas Charles “Roach” Rochon

Donald Henry Tomten

Biden narrowly wins Wisconsin; Trump to call for a recount


Democrat Joe Biden narrowly won battleground state Wisconsin on Wednesday, edging out President Donald Trump in a state that was crucial to the incumbent’s victory four years ago.

The Associated Press called Wisconsin for Biden after election officials in the state said all outstanding ballots had been counted, save for a few hundred in one township and an expected small number of provisional votes.

Trump’s campaign requested a recount, which a trailing candidate is allowed to do under state law if a race is within 1 percentage point. Statewide recounts in Wisconsin have historically changed the vote tally by only a few hundred votes. Biden leads by 0.624 percentage points out of nearly 3.3 million ballots counted.

Bill Stepien, Trump’s campaign manager, claimed there were “reports of irregularities in several counties” and pointed to a report about a printing error on up to 13,500 ballots that required them to be duplicated on Election Day so tabulation machines could count them. Trump carried the counties where that occurred by 10 points and 19 points.

Election officials had asked the Wisconsin Supreme Court to allow them to fill in the ballot misprint with a black mark so the tabulation machines could read them, but the court refused. That required the ballots in Outagamie and Calumet counties to be duplicated by hand on Election Day.

By Wednesday, the ballots, duplicated under the supervision of poll watchers and the assistance of members of the Wisconsin National Guard, had been counted, said Outagamie County Clerk Lori O’Bright.

Meagan Wolfe, the state’s top elections official, did not directly address the Trump campaign’s claim of irregularities. She defended the state’s election system, noting that a recount of the 2016 presidential result showed no widespread problems and resulted in only a few hundred votes changing.

“I believe that would be the case if we had a recount again in our state. You would find that we have a really solid system here,” Wolfe said.

Biden also won Michigan, reclaiming a key part of the “blue wall” that slipped away from Democrats four years ago and dramatically narrowing President Donald Trump’s pathway to re-election.

A full day after Election Day, neither candidate had cleared the 270 Electoral College votes needed to win the White House.

Biden, who has received more than 71 million votes, the most in history, was joined by his running mate Kamala Harris at an afternoon news conference and said he now expected to win the presidency, though he stopped short of outright declaring victory.

“I will govern as an American president,” Biden said. ”There will be no red states and blue states when we win. Just the United States of America.”

It was a stark contrast to Trump, who on Wednesday falsely proclaimed that he had won the election even though millions of votes remained uncounted and the race was far from over.

Since 2016, Democrats had been haunted by the crumbling of the blue wall, the trio of Great Lakes states—Pennsylvania is the third—that their candidates had been able to count on every four years. But Trump’s populist appeal struck a chord with white working-class voters and he captured all three in 2016 by a total margin of just 77,000 votes.

Both candidates this year fiercely fought for the states, with Biden’s everyman political persona resonating in blue-collar towns while his campaign also pushed to increase turnout among Black voters in cities such as Detroit and Milwaukee.

Pennsylvania remained too early to call Wednesday night.

It was unclear when or how quickly a national winner could be determined after a long, bitter campaign dominated by the coronavirus and its effects on Americans and the national economy. But Biden’s possible pathways to the White House were expanding rapidly.

After the victories in Wisconsin and Michigan, he was just six Electoral College votes away from the presidency in the AP’s projection. A win in any undecided state except for Alaska—but including Nevada, with its six votes—would be enough to end Trump’s tenure in the White House.

At the same time, hundreds of thousands of votes were still to be counted in Pennsylvania, and Trump’s campaign said it was moving to intervene in the existing Supreme Court litigation over counting mail-in ballots there. Yet the campaign also argued that it was the outstanding votes in Arizona that could reverse the outcome there, showcasing an inherent inconsistency with their arguments.

In discussing the results from Wisconsin, even some Republicans conceded that overcoming Biden’s lead of more than 20,000 votes would be difficult.

“If it holds, 20,000 is a high hurdle,” former Republican Gov. Scott Walker tweeted. He noted that two previous statewide recounts, including of the 2016 presidential race, resulted in net changes of 300 and 131 votes.

Doug Poland, an election law attorney who has opposed Republicans in Wisconsin, said he doubted that a recount would change the margin if Biden’s lead is in the thousands or tens of thousands of votes.

“Recounts result in a couple hundred votes changing, not that kind of margin,” he said.

The exact date when a recount would start depends on when the last of Wisconsin’s 72 counties certifies the results of the election. Counties must start that process no later than Tuesday, and they have until Nov. 17 to complete it.

Trump would have three days after the last county certifies its vote to submit a petition for a recount. That means he would have to submit a petition by Nov. 20, but typically counties complete the certification before the deadline.

The president would also have to pay the full cost of the recount. The state pays for recounts of races that are within a quarter of a percentage point. The last presidential recount, done in 2016, cost Green Party candidate Jill Stein $3.5 million.

Once the Wisconsin Elections Commission receives the petition and payment for a recount, it notifies the candidates and orders the recount to commence the following day at 9 a.m.

The county boards of canvassers for all 72 counties conduct the recount. The deadline to complete it and send the results to the state is no later than 13 days after the recount was ordered.

In the recount of the 2016 presidential race, the state elections commission ordered Nov. 29 that the recount begin Dec. 1. It was done Dec. 12.

Interestingly, that year Trump supporters filed a federal lawsuit to stop the recount, arguing that the state’s recount process is unconstitutional because ballots are not treated equally in all cases. They cited the standard used in the 2000 U.S. Supreme Court case that stopped the Florida recount and left George W. Bush as president. The lawsuit that year also argued that the recount risked preventing Wisconsin’s 10 electoral votes from being counted.

A judge did not rule on the merits of the case, but also did not stop the recount, noting that it had almost no chance of changing the outcome of a Trump victory.

Trump supporters in 2016 also filed lawsuits seeking to head off separate recounts in Michigan and Pennsylvania before those efforts could get started. Courts stopped recounts there.

In the 2016 Wisconsin recount, Democrat Hillary Clinton gained 713 votes while Trump picked up 844, widening his lead by 131 votes. Trump won the state by fewer than 23,000 votes, a margin of 0.77%.

There were several reasons some ballots were counted or not during the 2016 recount, said Scott McDonnel, the Dane County clerk, on Wednesday. For example, some people voted for Clinton or Trump and also wrote their names as write-in candidates. Those ballots were not counted initially but were included in the recount, he said. In a small number of cases, errors made by voters on absentee ballots were not caught in the initial screening but were in the recount, he said.

The next year, state lawmakers changed the law to require that only a candidate who is within 1 percentage point of the loser can request a recount. Stein had received just 1% of the vote but under the law as it existed at the time was able to force the recount.

Trump was ahead most of Election Day this year as votes cast Tuesday in person were counted first. After the early votes were counted, particularly 169,000 from the Democratic stronghold of Milwaukee, Biden took a lead around 4 a.m. Wednesday that grew to 20,517 votes with nearly all ballots counted.

Wolfe, the elections official, said all the ballots were in except for up to 300 in a small township and an unknown number of provisional ballots that she expected to total fewer than 1,000.

“There are no dark corners or locked doors on elections,” Wolfe said. “Anybody was free to watch those processes yesterday.”

Razor-thin presidential races have become the norm in Wisconsin, with three of the past five presidential elections in the state decided by less than a percentage point. In the closest of those races, Al Gore won Wisconsin in 2000 by 5,708 votes over George W. Bush, a difference of just 0.22%.

Trump, in 2016, was the first Republican presidential candidate to win the state since 1984. Biden outperformed Hillary Clinton’s totals from 2016 in urban areas while Trump did better in small towns and rural areas than he did four years ago.

A record-high 1.9 million ballots were cast before Election Day. Then more than 1 million people voted in person Tuesday, despite surging coronavirus cases in Wisconsin that also drove the absentee voting. The total votes were expected to break the record high turnout of the 2012 election.

Overall turnout looked to be nearly 3.3 million, the highest ever in Wisconsin. The previous high was slightly over 3 million in 2012. Turnout was roughly 72% of the voting-age population, the highest since 2004, when it was 73%.