Wisconsin official outlines absentee ballot system upgrades

(AP Photo/Carrie Antlfinger)
(AP Photo/Carrie Antlfinger)(NBC15)
Published: Jul. 30, 2020 at 4:05 PM CDT
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MADISON, Wis. (AP) — State elections officials say they’re making headway on streamlining absentee ballot tracking by using so-called intelligent bar codes, after a crush of complaints from voters who never received ballots in this spring’s election.

Wisconsin Elections Commission Administrator Meagan Wolfe wrote in a report to commissioners ahead of a Thursday evening meeting that staff has been meeting with the U.S. Postal Service since April and last month began adding intelligent bar codes to outgoing ballot envelopes. The codes can be scanned at postal centers, verifying that ballots are in the mail.

The work hasn’t been glitch-free. Staff discovered on June 24 that the postal service couldn’t decode and transmit updates on about 30,000 absentee applications, although those ballots would have still navigated the postal system as usual. The problem with those labels was identified and resolved on the same day, preventing similar problems with future applications.

What’s more, 270 ballots in Milwaukee that were processed by a third-party mail service didn’t display any postal service updates and were lost and had to be reissued. Commission staff are working on ways to better identify the envelopes as ballot mail ahead of the Aug. 11 primary, the report said.

Commission staff are still deciding whether to include the bar codes on return envelopes, Wolfe wrote. She said clerks are concerned that attaching another code would create more work and voters involved in testing said they don’t expect to track their ballots’ return trip to clerks.

She cautioned, too, that the commission can’t require clerks to use intelligent bar codes, and that some clerks don’t have reliable internet access and can’t print them. If those clerks choose to use them, they will need to rely on clerks in other jurisdictions to produce the labels for them and it’s unrealistic to expect them to shoulder that burden, she wrote.

She went on to say that staffers have upgraded MyVote, the state’s election database, to include a progress bar that voters can check to see whether their application has been approved and the date the ballot was sent. If an intelligent bar code is in use, voters will also see a date of anticipated delivery, Wolfe wrote.

Voters cast a record 1.3 million absentee ballots in the April presidential primary as they tried to avoid catching COVID-19 at the polls. Nearly 121,000 ballots were sent to voters but never returned; many voters said they never received them. Clerks said they were overwhelmed with requests and postal workers were accused of never delivering ballots to voters in the Fox Valley.

Nearly 2 million voters, almost two-thirds of the usual turnout for a presidential election, are expected to vote by mail in November, commission staff projected in May.

The commission wasn’t expected to take any action on the report Thursday. The panel was slated to approve simplified graphics and voter instructions on ballot envelopes, however.

Commissioners also were expected to approve $3.3 million in federal grants to bolster election security in 59 Wisconsin counties. They want to use the money to upgrade their firewalls, voting equipment and intrusion detection.

The commission also was set to discuss instructions for local clerks on how to handle Gov. Tony Evers’ order Thursday requiring masks to be worn throughout the state in all indoor spaces at the polls.

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