Photo by Saiyna Bashir, The Capital Times

The state Elections Commission voted unanimously Tuesday to tell Outagamie and Calumet counties it does not have the authority to issue a waiver allowing some 22 jurisdictions to bypass state law and count misprinted ballots by hand.

But anticipating the counties will next head to the courts to fix the problem, commissioners made a “strong recommendation” that a judge opts to allow local election officials to manually fix absentee ballots with a misprinted error rather than duplicating the ballot.

The commission on Monday released a letter from Outagamie County Deputy Corporation Counsel Kyle Sargent indicating at least 5,500 ballots sent to voters cannot be processed due to a misprint of a “timing mark” — the rectangular symbols that form a ring around a ballot.

Under statute, election officials must make duplicate copies of damaged ballots; they can also request permission to count all ballots by hand. Given the time constraints for clerks, Sargent said neither option presented a realistic remedy. Instead, he asked the commission for permission to hand count only the ballots with the printing error.

Prior conversations with the counties led the panel to believe local officials will ask the judicial branch to provide a solution. That led the commission to preemptively recommend fixing the fingernail sliver-size misprint with a black marker rather than forcing clerks to duplicate thousands of ballots.

According to Sargent, the Outagamie County’s ballot tabulator machine vendor indicated such a fix would allow the vote-counting machines to read the ballots.

See an example of the defective timing box:

The commission also recommended counties with municipalities that use a central location to count absentee ballots include information on their websites on how ballot counts are reported.

So-called “central count” locations often do not finish counting ballots until after local reporting wards report in-person tallies. That can create a situation where the number of votes reported in unofficial returns increases after some wards report 100 percent of ballots have been counted.

In an effort to head off disinformation about the results of the election, commissioners unanimously agreed to recommend the 15 counties with central count municipalities post information about the return process. Those counties include Milwaukee, Dane, Waukesha, Brown, Kenosha and Washington, among others.

Commissioners also nixed a plan by staff to spend roughly $750,000 of federal CARES Act funds to boost the agency’s ad campaigns on safe voting sites, election security and ballot deadlines.

Republicans Dean Knudson and Bob Spindell objected to directing funds to social media platforms due to what they perceived as a bias against conservatives. Instead, the commission agreed to the framework for a county-based reimbursement program set to be administered after the election.

The deadline to spend CARES Act funding is Dec. 30, at which point the funds must be returned to the federal government.

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