This management alert responds to the congressional requests and presents our results and recommendations to address the issues identified in this report.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there is an expected increase in the number of Americans who will choose to vote by mail and avoid in-person voting. This was evident during the Wisconsin spring election and presidential preference primary, as the Wisconsin Election Commission received over 1.3 million requests for absentee ballots for the April 7, 2020, election, almost 1 million of which were completed and returned by mail to the election offices. This was an increase of over 440 percent from the April 2016 election. The pandemic also played a role in last minute changes to the election rules.
The spring election was mandated to be held on the first Tuesday in April (April 7, 2020). On April 2, 2020, a federal judge extended the deadline for requesting absentee ballots to 5:00 p.m. on April 3, 2020, and moved the date for returning absentee ballots to 4:00 p.m. on April 13, 2020. On April 6, 2020, the governor of Wisconsin issued an executive order suspending in-person voting until June 9, 2020, to respond to public health concerns regarding COVID-19. On April 6, 2020, the Wisconsin Supreme Court overruled the governor’s executive order to postpone the date of the election. Subsequently, on the same day, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered that absentee ballots need to be submitted in‑person or postmarked by April 7, 2020 and received by the election commission by April 13, 2020, to be counted.
On April 9 and April 16, 2020, we received requests from U.S. Senators Tammy Baldwin and Ron Johnson and U.S. Representatives Gwen Moore and Bryan Steil to investigate reports of absentee ballots not delivered in a timely manner for the Wisconsin primary election held Tuesday, April 7, 2020. The requests mentioned the following issues:
- Three tubs of absentee ballots from Appleton and Oshkosh were found at the Milwaukee Processing & Distribution Center (P&DC) after polls closed on April 7, 2020.
- Absentee ballots requested on March 22 and 23, 2020, were not delivered to voters.
- The Postal Service returned absentee ballots to the Fox Point Village three weeks prior to the election without explaining why they were returned and not delivered. The Fox Point Village manager drove to the post office but could not get an answer as to why they were returned.
- Three hundred ninety ballots that were mailed by voters did not receive postmarks. The election office was unable to determine whether they were received by the Postal Service in time to be included in the official count.
The Postal Service generally followed its procedures for processing and delivering ballots for the Wisconsin spring election and presidential preference primary of April 7, 2020. However, we identified opportunities to improve communication and coordination between the Postal Service and election offices and strengthen adherence to procedures. We also identified potential nationwide issues integrating election office’s vote by mail processes with the Postal Service processes which could impact future elections. Specifically, for ballots processed in the Milwaukee area, we found issues related to the timeliness of ballots being mailed to voters, correcting misdelivery of ballots, an inability to track ballots, and inconsistent postmarking of ballots. Nationally, we noted potential concerns with the deadlines set by the states to request absentee ballots, ballots postmarks, ballots mailed without mail tracking technology, and the ratio of Political and Election Mail coordinators to election offices in certain locations.