Postmarks, Other Postal Issues Continue to Vex Wisconsin Primary Count

[Image via PBSWisconsin]

As today’s deadline arrives for absentee ballots in last week’s Wisconsin primary, state and local election officials are grappling with the effect of postal issues – especially postmarks, which are emerging as a trouble spot in the tabulation process. The Journal-Sentinel has more:

Hundreds of absentee ballots mailed back to the City of Madison for Tuesday’s election may not be counted, thanks to a missing postmark.

The problem is one that is emerging in communities across Wisconsin as election officials prepare to tally the results of an election conducted during the coronavirus pandemic. Results for the state Supreme Court and other races are to be released Monday.

The issue has surfaced because of a surge in mail voting and a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the eve of the election that requires absentee ballots to be postmarked by election day, April 7, if they arrive after that.

Madison City Clerk Maribeth Witzel-Behl said that so far her office has received more than 8,000 absentee ballots. Of those, 682 have no postmark, meaning that it’s likely they won’t be counted.

She said seeing the ballots come in without the postmark has been frustrating, especially since the ballots that came in on Wednesday were likely mailed before Tuesday.

“It’s heartbreaking to see that many of them have no postmark,” she said. “That’s not the fault of the voter. The voter has no control over that.”

Witzel-Behl said that she isn’t sure yet what will happen, but she’s seeking legal guidance and clarification.

Nearly 1.3 million absentee ballots were requested for Tuesday’s election, according to the Wisconsin Elections Commission. As of Friday morning, 1.08 million of those ballots had been returned.

Postmarks aren’t usually an issue in Wisconsin because of the requirement that ballots arrive by Election Day, but that practice was altered by the federal courts for the April 7 primary:

A postmark is a marking put over a stamp on a piece of mail at the post office where it’s received, often showing the location and date, according to information on the United States Postal Service website. The postmark cancels the stamp affixed to the mail so that it can’t later be peeled off and reused.

But in many cases, postmarks are not used, such as for metered mail.

Robert Sheehan, a Wisconsin media contact for the Postal Service, said the issue of absentee ballots without postmarks was being investigated but he declined to address other questions.

State statutes do not require absentee ballots to be postmarked. During a normal election, absentee ballots must be received by clerks by 8 p.m. on election day to be counted. If the ballot arrives after then, it cannot be counted.

But last week, U.S. District Judge William Conley ruled absentee ballots could count as long as they were received by clerks by April 13 — six days after election day — regardless of when they were sent. Republicans appealed part of that decision and the U.S. Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision sided with them late Monday and required that absentee ballots had to be in clerks’ hands by the next day or postmarked by then.

Conley didn’t put a postmark requirement in place because he knew thousands of voters wouldn’t receive their absentee ballots until after election day. But the Supreme Court said it was essential to have postmarks for late-arriving ballots to make sure they were cast before election day.

The state election commission confronted the issue during its meeting last Friday but was only able to agree on a relatively narrow approach to postmark requirements:

During a Friday meeting of the bipartisan state Elections Commission, Democrats tried to have more absentee ballots counted, but Republicans said they had little ability to do that because of the U.S. Supreme Court decision.

The commissioners unanimously agreed to count absentee ballots that arrived after election day that were stamped with a certain circular postmark if the U.S. Postal Service provides a written statement saying that postmark was used only on election day.

But Democrats said the commission should count a broader set of absentee ballots, including all of those that arrived Wednesday because they would have been in the mail by election day.

In many cases postmarks are nothing more than “decorative stamps” that don’t provide information about when mail was processed, said Ann Jacobs, one of the Democratic commissioners.

“How many people are we going to disenfranchise for a decorative stamp vs. actually having put their ballot in on time?” she said. “Those votes ought to be being counted.”

But the commission’s Republican chairman, Dean Knudson, said the commission had to go by what the Supreme Court said about postmarks.

“This is the problem with having court rulings on the eve of the election — is that it’s hard for us to get word out to people as to what that’s going to mean for them,” he said.

Scott Van Derven, president of the Wisconsin State Association of Letter Carriers, said in an interview that all absentee ballots delivered on Wednesday would have had to have been mailed on Tuesday or earlier. Mail is processed at the end of the day and there would be no way for someone to put an absentee ballot in the mail on Wednesday and have it delivered that same day, he said.

In addition to the postmark debate, election officials and lawmakers are asking the Postal Service to investigate reports of undelivered or returned ballots that never reached voters despite being mailed on time:

Postmarks aren’t the only issue with absentee ballots across the state. On Wednesday, attention was drawn to three tubs of undelivered ballots in a mail processing center that were meant for voters in Appleton and Oshkosh. Separately, the Milwaukee Elections Commission called for an investigation into other ballots that never made it to voters.

And in Fox Point, hundreds of undelivered ballots were sent back to the village, unopened and unmarked. No explanation was given as to what was wrong with the ballots, or why they couldn’t be delivered.

No details have been released about how many voters didn’t get absentee ballots, or how many of those who didn’t receive them ended up voting in person instead.

So far, election officials have been left mostly in the dark, said Meagan Wolfe, the director of the Wisconsin Elections Commission.

“We are having a really hard time getting any answer from the Postal Service themselves,” she said.

U.S. Sens. Tammy Baldwin and Ron Johnson are calling for an investigation into the missing ballots in the state, asking the United States Postal Service’s inspector general to identify what went wrong, as well as look into the issue of missing postmarks.

Needless to say, these questions are incredibly important in Wisconsin, but with election officials nationwide looking at a steep increase in mail ballots this fall, the discussion of postmarks – and the inquiry into postal issues – will have an impact far beyond the Badger State. Stay tuned …

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