Putting Trust and Integrity Back in Wisconsin Elections

Newly Proposed Monday Count Bill Is A Step In Right Direction

By: Will Flanders, PhD, Miranda Spindt

On Election night in 2020, many Wisconsinites went to bed thinking that Donald Trump had won the state.  The existing results showed the Republican President with a substantial lead, leaving many surprised—some happily and some not so much—to see that the results had flipped in the morning. While those who are more familiar with politics in Wisconsin likely expected this outcome given the large number of outstanding votes in Milwaukee the previous night, this became the impetus for countless allegations of extensive vote fraud in the months and years that followed.  Countless articles included allegations of “ballot dumps,” where phantom fraudsters allegedly stuffed the ballot box once they knew how many votes were needed.  

The chief cause of this delay in processing votes in Milwaukee is the large number of absentee ballots that must be processed and counted on election day under current law.  This was particularly exacerbated in 2020, with the ongoing pandemic leading to a larger share of individuals casting their votes absentee.  But there are common sense measures that can be taken to remedy this.  

One of the most straightforward is allowing election administrators to process ballots on the prior to the election.  Under a new proposal by Republican legislators, Wisconsin election officials would be able to do just that.  Under the bill, officials in municipalities that use a central count (like Milwaukee) would be required to begin canvassing the ballots on the Monday before the election. “Canvassing” in this context means checking that the information on the ballot is in line with state law, and that the ballot is in good enough condition to be run through the voting machine.  Importantly, it does not include counting the votes which some believe would open the door for fraudsters to game the system were they do know how the specific number of votes that would be needed to win the election.  This recommendation was included in WILL’s review of the 2020 election.  

Wisconsin would not be alone in implementing a system like this. For example, Indiana and Texas allow processing of absentee ballots to begin upon receipt of the ballot. They can verify the signature on the ballots and ensure it has been completed correctly to determine that it can be accepted or notify the voter that they must complete a new one if necessary. In Iowa, receipt of the absentee ballot must be given immediately, but they do not process ballots until the Saturday before the election. In each of these states, ballots cannot be scanned and counted until polls open on election day.  

Florida takes it a step further by counting the ballots before election day. Absentee ballots in Florida can begin being processed and counted 22 days before the election, and they can do so any later than noon on the following day. It is a felony to release voting results before the day of the election. 

Implementing these changes has turned Florida from a national laughingstock replete with hanging chads during the 2000 election into a model of efficiency where election winners are generally known very quickly after the polls have closed.  This state has only become more Republican in recent years—which ought to undermine the concerns of some that early processing will be used by the left to undermine election integrity.  

There was not evidence of widespread fraud in the 2020 election in Wisconsin.  But the belief of many that there was undermined faith in our electoral system, and ultimately been harmful to our democratic institutions. While there is a rational explanation for why electoral winners often change in the “dead of night,” there is little reason that this has to be the case.  It is well past time for Wisconsin to join many other states in allowing early canvassing of absentee ballots.  


Will Flanders, PHD

Will Flanders, PHD

Research Director

Miranda Spindt

Miranda Spindt

Policy Associate

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