Audit Bureau Releases 2020 Election Report

Last month, the Legislative Audit Bureau (LAB) released its report on election policy in Wisconsin. LAB is a nonpartisan agency of the Wisconsin Legislature. In February, the Joint Legislative Audit Committee directed LAB to examine issues with election administration in Wisconsin in the context of the November 2020 general election.

The report includes 18 recommendations to the Legislature and 30 recommendations to the staff of the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC). The report’s recommendations are organized under the topics of training, maintenance of voter registration records, absentee ballots, ballot processing, electronic voting equipment, post-election auditing, the handling of complaints and concerns filed with WEC, and election recount costs.

Following the release of the report, the co-chairs of the Joint Legislative Audit Committee released a statement noting that the election was generally safe and secure, but that WEC and its staff ignored or otherwise failed to comply with some state election laws. Senator Rob Cowles (R-Green Bay) and Representative Samantha Kerkman (R-Salem) run the committee. Senator Kathy Bernier (R-Chippewa Falls), a former county clerk and chair of the Senate elections committee, agreed in a similar statement.

Meanwhile, Democratic members of the audit committee disagreed with the majority’s assessment of WEC’s actions, saying in a joint statement that LAB’s report showed the 2020 election to be “free, accurate, fair and secure” and calling for more resources for training, technology, and staffing for elections. Media coverage highlighted that LAB’s report indicated no widespread fraud and that voting machines worked properly.

According to a review by WisPolitics, LAB’s recommendations to WEC include “suggesting the Elections Commission should promulgate administrative rules if it believes municipal clerks should be allowed to fill in missing information on absentee ballot envelopes or to use drop boxes.” LAB also noted that although state law requires clerks to initial absentee ballot certificates in certain situations, less than one percent of the certificates reviewed by LAB had been initialed.

Among other policies, LAB’s report suggests that the Legislature clarify as a matter of state law whether absentee ballots can be returned to drop boxes, which were newly adopted by many municipalities in 2020. The Legislature has already proposed several bills this session related to absentee ballot drop boxes, including Senate Bills (SB) 203 and 209. SB 209 would expressly authorize drop boxes under state law but restrict most communities to one box near the municipal clerk’s office. It passed the Senate in June and remains in committee in the Assembly.

SB 203 was vetoed by Governor Tony Evers (D) earlier this year, along with seven other bills to reform state election law. We covered those bills and vetoes here.

In addition to LAB’s election review, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) has authorized a separate taxpayer-funded investigation of the 2020 elections, run by former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman, who served on the state’s high court from 2008 to 2018. The investigation was originally approved in late May and Justice Gableman was hired in late June. Speaker Vos said that the release of LAB’s report “proves why further investigation is necessary and it is imperative that Justice Gableman continues to look into what led to these violations in election law.”

The Assembly Committee on Campaigns and Elections, chaired by Representative Janel Brandtjen (R-Menomonee Falls), is also reviewing the election, although this process appears to have been put on hold while Justice Gableman’s investigation proceeds.

Both reviews are examining ballots and voting equipment used in November 2020 as well as guidance documents and other materials used by local clerks.