Published 8:37 AM EST Feb 12, 2020
MADISON – Tens of thousands of Wisconsin absentee voters will soon receive not one but two ballots to use in the spring election, laying the groundwork for potential confusion among the voters who receive them.
Election officials are sending absentee voters two ballots for the spring contest because state law requires ballots for federal races to be mailed 47 days before the election. Under that law, absentee ballots for the April 7 presidential primary must go out on Feb. 20, or two days after the Feb. 18 primary for state and local races.
That means there’s no way to get a complete ballot to absentee voters that includes candidates who advance through the Feb. 18 primary election without violating state law.
Election officials’ solution is to send two ballots: One will be labeled by the letter “A” and will include just presidential candidates.
A second “B” ballot will be mailed in March, after spring primary election results are certified. The B ballot will include presidential candidates and candidates competing in state and local races. Among the state and local primaries on the ballot are races for state Supreme Court, Milwaukee mayor and Milwaukee County executive.
Voters who receive two ballots can return both of them. If they return both ballots, election clerks will be required to count only the B ballot and reject the A ballot.
Election officials estimated mailing the two ballots to about 81,000 residents.
Absentee voters living in the 7th Congressional District already received two ballots to use to decide the special election there to replace former U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy.
Washington County Clerk Ashley Reichert unsuccessfully sought support from lawmakers in recent weeks to make a fix in state law to avoid sending two ballots, eliminating the need to evaluate twice the number of ballots than they would have to otherwise on election night.
But Washington County lobbyist Ethan Hollenberger said he was confident clerks would not end up counting votes from one person twice.
“The citizens should know that clerks are ready to accurately enforce this statute,” he said. “No person will double vote (in) Wisconsin elections, and we will work to educate the absentee voters impacted to ensure every vote is counted.”
The situation creates the risk of voter confusion. Some voters who return an A ballot might be worried about filling out the B ballot because they won’t want to be accused of voting twice — even though only one ballot will be counted.
If someone votes for a presidential candidate on the A ballot and only state and local candidates on the B ballot, the person’s vote for president won’t be counted because clerks will count only B ballots for voters who return both ballots.
Local election clerks didn’t receive official guidance about this requirement until Feb. 5, according to a memo from the Wisconsin Elections Commission to clerks.
Local elections officials did not send ballots until after the 47-day limit in the 2012 or 2016 presidential contests, violating the law in both cases.
Elections Commission officials suggest clerks tell absentee voters to return both ballots to ensure their votes in the spring state races are counted.
The A ballot also could create a risk for error because the ballots will not be created in a way to be counted using optical scan equipment, according to the Elections Commission memo.
Patrick Marley of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.
Contact Molly Beck at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @MollyBeck.