Journal Times editorial: Election Commission failed Wisconsin voters
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Journal Times editorial: Election Commission failed Wisconsin voters

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Two and a half weeks ago, we warned that the April 7 spring election was a mess and said it would only get worse before election day.

Sure enough, it did.

We argued at the time that, in the face of the spread of the coronavirus across the state, the election should be postponed. We urged Gov. Tony Evers and Republican leaders in the state Senate and Assembly to take that action before it was too late.

Evers had already proposed going to all-mail ballots, but Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said that was a “careless and reckless” suggestion that would not have been logistically possible for the election clerks across the state to accomplish.

On the day before the election, Evers postponed the vote, but state Republicans went to the Wisconsin Supreme Court to get Evers’ executive order quashed, which it promptly did.

Even as that was going on, a fight was developing over extending the deadline for mail-in absentee ballots. After a federal court judge noted it may be “ill-advised” for in-person voting because of the coronavirus, he ruled in favor of granting a one-week extension to send in mail-in ballots to April 13. That, too, was met with a court challenge by state Republicans and a quick appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court which denied the extension and issued a ruling saying mail-in ballots must be “postmarked” by April 7 and received within a week.

Election Day came and went on schedule. There was a massive increase in mail-in voting, but the in-person voting was fairly quiet and orderly at the polls, except for Milwaukee, which had only five polling places open instead of the usual 180 because of a shortage of poll workers and Green Bay, which also reduced its number of polling sites.

But the mess was not over. The Supreme Court ruling that mail-in ballots had to be postmarked by Tuesday, April 7 triggered another fight between the partisan members of the Wisconsin Elections Commission.

The problem? Not all mailed-in ballots bore postmarks. Mailings with a permit meter or pre-cancelled stamp for postage aren’t required to get cancellation marks; some postmarks were smudged or unclear and others carried a cancellation mark with only “April, 2020” on them. Compound that with the issue of ballots that may have been in the possession of the Post Office on Tuesday — either in a mailbox or a bin — but not processed until April 8.

The Elections Commission with its three Democrat appointees and three Republican appointees on Friday after the election did what it has done often: it deadlocked 3-3 on giving instruction to local election clerks.

The only instruction it gave to the 1,850 municipalities around the state and their canvass boards was: “Each municipality must determine whether the ballot was postmarked timely.”

In other words: You’re on your own.

As we said it’s not the first time the WEC has deadlocked. It did so famously last year when the commission deadlocked (yes, 3-3) on a proposal by Republicans to purge more than 200,000 voters from the state rolls. That case is still bubbling through the courts with the voter purge denied in the most recent ruling.

That’s not the kind of direction we should be getting from the Wisconsin Election Commission. Deadlocks and partisan infighting undercut the commission’s duty to support and give guidance to election clerks across the state.

As one election clerk put it last week, “I don’t want to throw the Elections Commission under the bus, but if their job is to interpret the rules and they’re not doing it, something has to change. If they’re going to deadlock in a 3-3 tie and throw the onus back to us, we’ll do the best we can. But it can be frustrating when you ask the experts for an answer and they can’t give us one.”

We would suggest adding a tie-breaker member to the six-person commission. Maybe someone chosen at random from the Wisconsin Municipal Clerks Association — someone with skin in the game, some expertise — but not necessarily a political ax to grind like the partisan appointees.

The commission’s gridlock on the postmark issue means that each clerk and canvass board will have to make its own decision — and potentially defend their actions on why some postmarked ballots were accepted and others were not. Yes, that might end up in court.

Those decisions will vary across the state, where they should be uniform.

According to news reports last week, Milwaukee received 380 ballots with unclear postmarks. The elections commission there voted to accept all ballots with questionable postmarks.

In the City of Racine, City Clerk Tara Coolidge said they rejected 88 ballots because they did not have an April 7 postmark. The city was still receiving ballots by mail on Tuesday. Caledonia Village Clerk Karie Pope said the village received 24 ballots postmarked April 8, which were rejected.

Those rejected ballots loomed large as a $1 billion, 30-year school referendum which passed by a five-vote margin was challenged with a recount, which took place Saturday.

We deserve better than this from Elections Commission members who put party power over the needs of Wisconsin’s citizens.

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