TO: Members of the Wisconsin Elections Commission and Staff
FROM: Jay Heck, Executive Director of Common Cause in Wisconsin
DATE: December 1, 2021
RE: Statement from Common Cause Wisconsin on the Legislative Audit Report 21-19: Elections Administration
Dear Chair Jacobs, Members of the Commission, and staff,
I’m Jay Heck and, since 1996 I have had the privilege of serving as the Executive Director of Common Cause in Wisconsin, the state’s largest non-partisan political reform advocacy organization with more than 8,000 members and activists. We are Republicans, Democrats, Independents, conservatives, liberals and everything in between — united in our commitment to transparent, accountable state government, fair elections, the preservation of our democracy and the kind of politics that serve all of the citizens of Wisconsin – above board, civil and honest.
And today, we are here to provide public comment on a few recommendations from the Legislative Audit Report released in October 2021 regarding election administration during the November 2020 elections in Wisconsin. We have prepared a condensed public statement for you now and a longer written statement with additional details.
First and foremost, we must not overlook and diminish the very significant fact that, according to experts in Wisconsin and across the nation, the 2020 election here is considered to be among the most securely run and administered in recent state history. It would benefit this commission in proceeding with the handling of the Legislative Audit Bureau (LAB) report to agree on this indisputable point. Only with that, as the common point shared by all Wisconsinites, it is then possible to carefully and objectively examine the election procedures that were in place in Wisconsin during a unique and unprecedented public health crisis.
Additionally, Common Cause Wisconsin supports that the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC) should have been able to review, address and discuss the LAB’s findings directly with the LAB, prior to the public release of the report. All discrepancies between the LAB’s findings and WEC response and those differences and corrections should have been noted in the report before the report was publicly released. The process of releasing this report was inconsistent with past LAB procedure with regard to confirmation of the accuracy of the report. Unfortunately, the procedure of the release of the report has taken focus away from the critical analysis and recommendations of the report and given additional fodder to partisans who seek to undermine our democracy and to further curtail the ability of Wisconsinites to vote.
Finally, elections in Wisconsin, and elsewhere can always be improved. And there is opportunity to accomplish this constructively and responsibly. But it ought to start from the premise that the 2020 elections in Wisconsin were successful and remarkably well conducted. The most important question these recommendations should be answering is about how we can improve the voting experiences for Wisconsinites? How do we improve voter accessibility? And also, how do we improve and support poll worker and election clerk trainings? How do we ensure that there is sufficient and accurate voter information and data? How do we protect voter drop box access? How do we make sure elections are adequately funded throughout Wisconsin through the state budget process? Common Cause Wisconsin supports the following recommendations for improving election administration:
One area the LAB report points to as a way to strengthen the validity of election results is through risk-limiting audits (RLAs) (LAB report p84-86). RLAs can give strong assurance that the reported outcome is what a full hand count would find. Unlike other audits in Wisconsin that focus on the performance of the voting equipment, RLAs focus on validating the election results. Basically, a risk-limiting audit is a statistical methodology that shows the machine tabulated results are consistent with a full hand count. Risk-limiting audits have been piloted and performed in many states over the past several elections including, Michigan, Ohio, California, Rhode Island, Colorado, and Indiana. Recently, Texas has also passed a law to begin risk-limiting audits in their state. Risk-limiting audits are not partisan. Rather, RLAs are an adopted, rigorous, and disciplined method to ensure security and confidence in elections in a routine and transparent process based on scientifically-sound best practices, not on “thrown together investigations” because a losing candidate did not accept the outcome. The state would create parameters of the RLA and provide a uniformity of practice that is carried out by election administrators, not the individuals who are on the ballot and have a stake in the outcome of the election. Wisconsin should consider a pilot program for risk-limiting audits for 2022.
Automatic Voter Registration
The LAB report makes several recommendations regarding voter data. Common Cause Wisconsin suggests that WEC consider Automatic Voter Registration (AVR) to increase the accuracy of voter rolls and improve the security of election administration. The benefits of AVR are clear as twenty-three states have already implemented an AVR system to their election systems. If implemented, an integrated registration updating procedure would enhance the accuracy of the voter registration rolls by ensuring that voters who have moved also submit an up-to-date registration. It would also reduce the number of voters who must receive the ERIC Movers Mailing, the Four Year Maintenance Process mailing, and reduce the number of voters who need to update their voter registration with the clerks or at the polling place on election day. An AVR system in Wisconsin would be an incredible cost savings, improve voter information accuracy, and increase convenience for both voters and election officials. It is time for Wisconsin to update our systems to include automatic voter registration.
The LAB report shows a sample of the use of drop boxes across Wisconsin and gives recommendations to WEC and the legislature to set standards for how drop boxes are constructed, maintained, and secured. (LAB report p46-48 plus appendix 9). These recommendations should be implemented by setting a standard rather than setting a limit on drop boxes. All drop boxes that meet the requirements for construction, maintenance and security should be allowed to be installed by the municipal clerk to best serve the voters of that community. Drop boxes are useful, legal, and popular. We must ensure every Wisconsinite who wants to can cast a ballot, and that means protecting drop boxes, mailing absentee ballots, and preserving the right to return a sealed absentee ballot to a clerk.
Absentee Ballot Certificates/Envelope Cure Processes
The LAB also provides opportunities to strengthen areas of Wisconsin’s election administration that need clarity and standards. One such area is around absentee ballot certificate/envelope cure processes (LAB report p40-46). Currently, each municipal clerk decides to what extent voters can correct mistakes, but this is not required. Clarification and standardization should be provided to the clerks and the voters on the process of curing an absentee ballot certificate/envelope. The clarification should include the timeline for clerks to give notice to the voter when their absentee ballot envelope needs to be cured so the voter can make corrections in time for their ballot to be counted. This clarification should also include how that notice is given by the clerks to the voters. Additionally, clerks should be allowed to correct errors with reliable information, such as fixing a witness’s address or printing the witness’s name, and clarification should be made on how these corrections are to be documented. Just as election administration takes many forms across the various states, curing processes do too. However, across the country, currently 30 states have a uniform statewide curing process. It is time for Wisconsin to also adopt statewide standards for curing an absentee ballot certificate/envelope. Minor and inadvertent errors on an absentee ballot certificate/envelope should not prohibit a voter from the opportunity to correct these errors and have their vote counted. Clerks should also be provided clarity for their process to assist voters. This process should seek to yield the greatest number of votes counted holding both voter and clerk accountable while the process is uniform and clear. Unfortunately, in the latest legislative session, SB 212 / AB 198 sought only to bring uniformity to this cure process by means of adding unnecessary punishments to clerks and reducing opportunities for voters to have the ballots counted. This piece of legislation was not the answer to the absentee ballot certificate/envelope cure process problems.
Poll Worker Training
The LAB report makes recommendations to improve Wisconsin’s poll worker training to increase common knowledge and understanding of election administration across Wisconsin’s over 1,850 municipalities to ensure that election procedures and rules are consistently and accurately applied (LAB report p10-17, appendix 7). When poll workers are not adequately trained, voters risk being disenfranchised by wrongfully being turned away, not provided lawful accommodations, or polling site wait times and confusion increase. Currently, state training requirements are minimal and inconsistent. WEC’s training materials are a good resource for clerks to use and this support, along with frequent retraining and testing should be required for poll workers, chief inspectors, and special voting deputies.
While the LAB report affirmed the accuracy and security of the 2020 elections, it did not address to what extent election officials are complying with laws that protect the rights of voters with disabilities and ensure the accessibility of our elections. These rights are protected by state and federal law, yet voters around the state continue to be denied accommodations required by these laws such as curbside voting or assistance completing their ballot. WEC needs additional resources and authority to provide oversight and enforcement including for the WEC Polling Place Accessibility Audits program conducted on Election Day, and the WEC Accessibility Supply Program.
The recommendations from the Legislative Audit Bureau cannot occur without the financial support of the legislature to make them happen. The LAB’s recommendations need additional funding for them to be a success and for voters to receive any benefit from their implementation. Simply calling for WEC to make improvements without providing the requisite additional resources and personnel to accomplish those changes simply will not cut it with anyone, least of all with the voters of Wisconsin who deserve to be served better.
There is always room for improvements and adjustments that can be made to better election administration and security. These are evolving matters from one election to another and always deserve to be reviewed and updated. Such reviews occur after every election. Election officials, clerks, and poll workers performed extraordinarily well under the unique and extenuating circumstances of the 2020 elections, again, which are considered to be among the most secure and successfully administered elections in recent history. It is critical that a review of 2020 be based on truth in order to be able to factually assess the value of the LAB report and the recommendations that have been put forward for public inspection and consideration.