They voted in every election—until April 7. For some Wisconsin voters, absentee ballot issues meant no voice.

Paul and Andrea Fenner (photo provided by family to WSAW) / Image of the My Vote website
Paul and Andrea Fenner (photo provided by family to WSAW) / Image of the My Vote website(WSAW)
Published: Apr. 7, 2020 at 7:13 PM CDT
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Until April 7, Lincoln County resident Andrea Fenner and her husband Paul had voted in every election in their memory. Tuesday, that changed.

“It’s extremely troubling,” Andrea told 7 Investigates in a video interview Tuesday afternoon. By that time, the mail had already arrived for the day in North Carolina where they had first traveled on vacation and are now remaining until the COVID-19 outbreak subsides. Their absentee ballots, however, had not arrived.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday evening that ballots postmarked after April 7 but received by April 13th could not be counted for April’s primary election, overturning a lower federal court’s ruling that had would have permitted them. Results will still not be released until April 13 to allow for the counting of absentee ballots postmarked by April 7, but for voters like Andrea and Paul and others 7 Investigates spoke with Tuesday who never received their ballot, their voices won’t be counted.

“My husband and I have voted in every election that we can ever remember,” Andrea said. They’re lifelong Wisconsin residents, and requested their absentee ballots with their daughter Shannon’s help more than a week ago. Shannon, who lives in a different Wisconsin township from them, had received her ballot in North Carolina. She'd also made sure the correct address had been included in Andrea and Paul’s application, as well as contacting the appropriate clerk.

On Tuesday, when 7 Investigates tracked Andrea’s ballot, the WEC website showed it as being sent on March 30. But the ballot hadn’t just not appeared in their North Carolina mailbox; when a friend checked their Wisconsin home address where they had arranged mail forwarding to North Carolina, the ballot still was not there late Tuesday afternoon.

“It’s a sad day for Wisconsin,” Andrea said. “I think a lot of people are upset.” She and her husband are in their 70s, and have multiple family members with health conditions that put them at higher risk if infected with COVID-19.

And even while their ballot was marked as sent on the My Vote website, almost 13,000 other absentee ballots were requested but not sent as of Tuesday evening, according to data tracked on the WEC website. However, Reid Magney with the WEC cautioned that the numbers of both requested, sent and received absentee ballots could be larger, due to overworked municipal clerks unable to update their data.

“Clerks are swamped and may be behind on data entry,” Magney noted. Postal service issues could be part of the problem when receiving ballots, Magney said, but they weren’t ruling out other issues as well.

Almost 1.3 million absentee ballots were requested according to data posted to the WEC for April 7, roughly five times the previous record of absentee ballot requests. Out of 1.3 million, almost a million (or 77%) had been returned by the time polls closed Tuesday, a number that could still increase as clerks continue inputting data. Normally, absentee ballots have an 80% return rate.

7 Investigates spoke with several would-be voters Tuesday who hadn't been able to receive requested ballots. But unsent and unreceived ballots weren’t the only issue stopping voters from casting a ballot Tuesday. Others said they struggled with the technology surrounding requesting an absentee ballot.

Wendy Gohdes in Marathon County said she tried accessing the My Vote website more than a dozen times over a period of a couple weeks, trying to request a ballot. Each time, she said she either wasn’t able to load the site or once loaded, the site froze. She’s self-quarantining with her husband, who’s at high risk if infected.

“He had a kidney transplant. So his white blood count is practically nonexistent,” Gohdes said. “He can’t take the chance of going near anybody that’s a possibility.” Gohdes didn’t vote today.

“We can’t take the chance of walking in by any people.”

Election results won’t be available until after 4 p.m. on April 13th, after a chaotic election eve in which Governor Tony Evers ordered a suspension of in-person voting until June, an order that was later overturned Monday evening by the state supreme court.

Editor's note: The newscast version of this story used data available from 7:30am Tuesday morning, which showed almost 10,000 absentee ballots that had not been sent out. The article has been updated to reflect data released after the polls closed, showing 13,000 absentee ballots not sent out. That number is expected to continue to change until all data has been inputted by municipal clerks.