by Jennifer O’Hear: executive director and lead organizer of Common Ground
On a sweltering afternoon this summer, I was going door-to-door on the north side of Milwaukee as part of Common Ground’s 2020 Get Out The Vote campaign when I met two women sitting in the shade of their front porch.
One, Mabel, was a veteran poll worker; the other was not registered and needed to obtain an ID to vote. They were fired up about voting in the presidential election, so much so that after our chat, Sandra went to the Department of Motor Vehicles and got her ID. Then I helped her register and request an absentee ballot. When she finally got her ballot, she called me that morning asking if I could be there when she filled it out. She had never voted absentee before and was afraid to make a mistake that would invalidate her ballot.
I’ve met many voters like Sandra, who want their voices to be heard but are afraid the system will not count their good-faith effort to follow the rules and vote.
That is why we must insist that every vote count.
Common Ground is registering voters and helping them request absentee ballots or get to the polls. And just as importantly, we are tracking the names and addresses of the more than 15,000 voters we are helping to register and vote to make sure each of their ballots is counted. Common Ground is a nonpartisan, nonprofit collective of 40 organizations with a 12-year track record of building power for the common good.
We work to increase participation and ensure votes are properly tallied because our democracy is at stake. It only works when each of us has faith that our vote matters. It doesn’t matter who we cast our ballots for, but we should be united to make sure each vote is counted, especially in Wisconsin where the eyes of the nation are on us this election season.
That means we have to be ready. Because of the pandemic, there will be an unprecedented number of absentee ballots cast. Counting every ballot will take time, so we need to adjust our expectations. Unless there is a huge landslide, we may not have clear results on election night. We should expect that it may take a week or more for all ballots to be counted.
We should also expect that vote totals may change significantly as absentee and provisional ballots are counted over the days and weeks following the election. While in the past, voters of both parties used absentee voting at similar rates, that has been changing over the past 20 years and accelerated this year as voters try to minimize their exposure to COVID-19, and they hear conflicting advice from candidates about the safety and legitimacy of absentee voting.
Many voters expect that the election will be “called” on election night. Indeed, the media or the candidates may try to call the race before all the ballots have been counted. But this is a year like no other and we must take the needed time to ensure we’ve counted every vote.
A major reason counting the votes may not be completed on Election Day is that Wisconsin forbids the processing of absentee ballots before 7 a.m. on Election Day. Recently, Wisconsin U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, a Republican, said, "I am highly concerned that the results will not be known on election night because of this massive increase of mail-in balloting. It takes days or weeks to find out who the winner is.” He continued, "I think we should change the law so the ballots can be counted well before Election Day, so that Wisconsin results are known by 9, 10, 11 o'clock on Election Day....”
Sen. Johnson’s suggestion is a good one. We should do everything we can to accurately and efficiently count all the votes and get results faster.
As the process of counting votes drags on, expect that there will be efforts to disrupt or bypass a complete count of the votes. This may be done under the guise of preventing fraud. However, voter fraud is not a significant threat to the integrity of our elections. The Brennan Center, a nonpartisan think tank, found voter fraud is practically nonexistent at the “miniscule rate” of 0.0025 percent. Another examination, by a Loyola Law School professor, found only 31 credible claims of fraud from 2000 to 2014, out of more than 1,000,000,000 ballots cast.
Common Ground believes that democracy works best when more people participate — in our communities, in government, and in voting. Common Ground believes that tactics that suppress voting and reduce faith in the electoral process threaten our democracy far more than unproven claims of election fraud.
So for Sandra and each of the 3.6 million registered voters in Wisconsin who are planning to vote in this election, we need to make sure that all ballots are counted.