Voting booths at the Doyle Administration Building, a polling place on election day in Madison, on Tuesday, April 3, 2018. PHOTO BY MICHELLE STOCKER

The state Elections Commission voted unanimously Saturday to move toward adding intelligent barcodes to absentee ballots so they can be better tracked in future elections after a record number were cast this spring.

Commission Administrator Meagan Wolfe said the move would “add a lot of accountability” to the state’s absentee ballots in anticipation that the more than 1.1 million residents who voted by mail this spring would be more likely to use that option in future elections.

Under the proposal, the agency would use federal money to add the barcodes and update the state’s MyVote website to allow voters to track their absentee ballots from the moment they’re requested until they’re in the hands of local clerks.

The move comes after a number of problems popped up with absentee ballots this spring as voters largely cast their ballots by mail, accounting for the bulk of the more than 1.5 million votes cast overall. That includes, for example, some voters complaining they didn’t receive the ballot they requested and bins of absentee ballots found at a Milwaukee postal processing center.

Dem Commissioner Mark Thomsen said the change would mean no more questions from voters on where their ballots were.

“We’d know whether it’s sitting in a postal bin in Milwaukee,” Thomsen said.

Those who voted by absentee ballot this spring faced a series of federal court decisions that altered the process, which normally requires ballots to be in the hands of local clerks by 8 p.m. on election day. That includes a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that absentee ballots had to be postmarked by election day and the justices upholding a lower court ruling that set a deadline six days laters for ballots to be received so they could be counted.

Of the 1.1 million absentee ballots cast, 22,820 that were rejected. That included 11,944 lacking the required certification, such as a witness signature.

That requirement became a significant issue in the election as voters rushed to use absentee ballots to avoid going to the polls in-person during the COVID-19 pandemic. A federal judge overturned the witness signature requirement, ruling voters could instead submit an affidavit stating they didn’t feel safe having someone else watch them cast the ballot. That ruling was overturned by an appeals court the next day, and the Elections Commission ruled those voters weren’t allowed to fix the issue or cast a new ballot.

Other reasons they were rejected included:

*5,378 that were postmarked after election day.
*4,678 that weren’t returned by 4 p.m. April 13, the deadline for receipt set by the federal courts.
*556 because a superseding ballot was returned.
*229 because the certificate envelope was compromised.
*15 because the voter died before the election.
*15 because the voter was ineligible.
*another five were rejected with no specific reason listed.

The agency also has tallied 135,417 absentee ballots requested that weren’t returned.

That includes:
*9,910 that were canceled by the clerk.
*9,881 that were canceled by the voter.
*4,065 that were returned as undeliverable.
*304 who refused a ballot from a special voting deputy.
*176 because the voters were ineligible to receive one.

The commission also deadlocked on a motion to review decisions by local officials in Milwaukee and Green Bay to dramatically cut back the number of in-person polling sites available on election day, resulting in voters standing in long lines for hours.

Bob Spindell, a GOP appointee to the commission, pushed the motion, saying he wanted to know about communications between the guv’s office and local officials to find out what they knew about the availability of National Guard members and their decision not to use them to open more sites in Milwaukee and Green Bay.

He noted national Dems seized on the scenes of long lines to slam how the election was conducted.

“The city of Milwaukee did not deserve that and the state of Wisconsin did not deserve that. The question in my mind was this intentional to show this?” Spindell said.

Dem appointees Ann Jacobs bristled at the suggestion, saying Spindell was implying that local officials were “murdering their fellow citizens for a political stunt,” calling the suggestion beyond the pale.

“I think that’s vile. I think it’s offensive. I think it’s defamatory to the people involved,” she said.

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