Bruce Murphy

Larson Letter Urges More Days to Count Votes

Democrats cite massive absentee vote, call for extraordinary legislative session to extend time for ballot counting.

By - Oct 14th, 2020 11:54 am
Returned ballots for the November 2020 election. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Returned ballots for the November 2020 election. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

State Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) along with 22 other Wisconsin legislators, has sent a letter to the Republican leaders urging them to meet in extraordinary session to pass a law that would allow clerks to start counting absentee ballots before Election Day. Under the current law they cannot begin counting ballots until 7 a.m. on Tuesday, November 3,  even though they have already received a huge number of absentee ballots.

The letter to Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, both Republicans, cited the historically “unprecedented” number of absentees ballots that election clerks will have to count: “As of Monday morning, October 12th, just over three weeks until the election, 1,334,041 absentee ballots have been requested and 683,233 have been returned. Our local clerks need extra time to process these ballots if we are to have any hope of reporting results within 24 hours of poll closing at 8pm on Tuesday, November 3rd.”

The letter notes that “Election integrity is of utmost concern for voters in Wisconsin, and the longer the count takes, the more potential for mistrust in results to be fomented by those who mean harm to our democracy.”

With that in mind and “in order to ensure timely reporting of Wisconsin’s election results this November, we call on the Wisconsin State Legislature to meet in extraordinary session as soon as practicable to pass legislation allowing the canvassing of absentee ballots” to begin earlier, the letter states.

Among the critical swing states, only Pennsylvania and Wisconsin do not allow ballot counting to begin earlier. “The vast majority of states allow at least some processing of absentee ballots before Election Day, while only 9 states prohibit any sort of pre-election day processing as Wisconsin currently does,” the letter notes. “A bipartisan bill, SB 574, was introduced in November of 2019 that would make the change requested here.”

As the letter notes, one Republican who favors the idea is U.S. Senator Ron Johnson. “I think we should change the law,” Johnson has said, “so the ballots can be counted well before Election Day, so that Wisconsin results are known by 9, 10, 11 o’clock on Election Day, so Wisconsin isn’t part of the problem.”

While Larson’s letter doesn’t state who might try to foment “mistrust in the results,” President Donald Trump has made comments suggesting the election should be called based on ballots counted by the end of election day, which would mean the full results in Democratic-leaning urban areas like Milwaukee and Madison would not be counted. He has also cast doubt on the entire process and refused to say he would abide by the results of the election.

Matt Rothschild, executive director of the good government group Wisconsin Democrat Campaign, has called Larson’s proposal an eminently good idea.

Jay Heck, executive of Common Cause of Wisconsin, which advocates for fair elections, also backs the legislation. “The sheer number of absentee ballots being received by election clerks for November 3rd will dwarf even the unprecedented number sent in by Wisconsin voters in April,” he told Urban Milwaukee. “And in-person voter turnout on November 3rd will greatly exceed that of April 7th. The crush of ballots will be such that poll workers will likely not be able to accurately process and count all of the ballots in a timely manner.”

Unless the goal is “to try to sow confusion and delay in the counting of ballots in Wisconsin,” he added, “there is no reason for the Legislature not to meet in extraordinary session and make this needed and simple change with regard to the processing and counting absentee ballots.”

Kit Beyer, communications director for Vos, responded to Urban Milwaukee’s request for comment by him, noting that “Representatives approved AB 203, which would allow an individual who is casting an in-person absentee ballot to feed the ballot into the voting machine before Election Day, with safeguards present. Speaker Vos voted in favor of the bill.”

But the legislation wasn’t passed by the Senate. And it would do nothing to speed up the counting of hundreds of thousands of mailed-in ballots by voters who do not want to vote in person given the COVID-19 pandemic.

The bill that Larson’s letter urges the Legislature to pass was introduced in the Senate and had 10 Republican co-sponsors from the Senate and Assembly, and had a public hearing, but was never gotten to before the Legislature adjourned in April. No full time Legislature in the U.S. has met less since the pandemic, an analysis by found.

Fitzgerald did not respond to requests for comment.

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