CBS 58 Investigates: Voters not guaranteed opportunity to fix absentee ballot mistakes
MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- Wisconsin election officials project the number of people voting by absentee could be three times higher than any general election in the state's history. In April, 23,000 absentee ballots were rejected over problems with how they were submitted.
But a CBS 58 Investigation found there's no guarantee voters will be able to correct mistakes on their absentee ballots before Election Day.
Twenty-three thousand rejected absentee ballots out of 1.2 million counted in April may not seem like much, but that number is roughly the margin of victory President Trump had in 2016.
"The process was pretty simple online to request a ballot and they came pretty quick for us which was nice," said absentee voter Sarah Tulley.
Tulley voted absentee in April for the first time since 2006. She plans to do so again this fall so she can work the polls in Milwaukee as an election inspector.
"I've always been interested in elections and working the polls and there's a need," said Tulley.
She was surprised to learn CBS 58 Investigates found her April ballot had been rejected. It was because she didn't have a witness signature on the envelope.
"Totally missed that when we were doing that, OK, well that's good to know where it is now," said Tulley.
Her ballot was one of 10 rejects from Brown Deer reviewed by CBS 58 Investigates. Tulley also didn't sign her mom's ballot as a witness either. Other voters made the same mistake, didn't sign their own name, or returned the envelope blank. That means election inspectors must reject the ballots.
"I am kind of surprised, I didn't realize that was a requirement," said Tulley.
Multiple elections officials tell CBS 58 Investigates they try to contact voters to have them correct problems, but the law doesn't require they do that.
"Legally we are not required to do anything, we are required to reject it," said Milwaukee Election Commission Director Claire Woodall-Vogg.
She says the commission will mail absentee ballots back to voters to make corrections. Election staff can also help voters at libraries through the end of remote voter registration on Oct.14.
"We are also working with community volunteers to call voters," said Woodall-Vogg.
New this election, the state updated its online ballot tracking system. It now shows if a ballot is being returned because of problems.
"Which is a huge improvement and will make it very efficient," said Woodall-Vogg.
"If your clerk receives your ballot back where there's some kind of deficiency and they don't think it can be counted, the clerks will be able to mark that in the statewide system and we'll also be able to show that in the myvote system so that you're aware," said Wisconsin Elections Commission Administrator Meagan Wolfe.
But that information may still not reach a chunk of voters. Census data reviewed by CBS 58 Investigates showed tens of thousands of Black and brown people in Milwaukee County don't have internet service in their home.
The NAACP put on an event recently to help register and educate voters.
"This is about voter education, mobilization, and registration," said Milwaukee NAACP Branch President Fred Royal.
Souls to the Polls outreach coordinator Anita Johnson worried voters getting a ballot returned to them won't know what to do.
"If I get my ballot back I'm going to be confused," said Johnson.
She said the voters she's helped registered are worried about the United States Postal Service delivering their ballots on time.
"People are more worried about their ballots getting to the election commission in time to be counted," said Johnson.
So Johnson has been encouraging those people who are worried to vote in person at one of the early voting sites this election.
"Right then and there and then you're done, you don't have to worry about drop boxes or mailing," said Johnson.
The Milwaukee Election Commission said two percent of absentee ballots returned on time in April were rejected for signature problems. That fell to less than one percent in the August partisan primary. Progress, although turnout in August was lower than in April.
A federal judge recently rejected portions of a Wisconsin lawsuit asking the courts to block the state's witness signature requirement this November. The judge noted there are more options to vote in person and the U.S. Supreme Court has blocked rulings in other states asking for similar changes.