The city of Madison collected 10,813 absentee ballots from local residents at this weekend’s Democracy in the Park event, which state Republicans tried to halt.
Despite a threat of legal action from the state GOP if the event were to take place, the Madison City Clerk’s Office forged ahead with the event, arguing Republicans had no legal support for allegations the event constituted an “illegal collection of ballots” that “falls outside lawful categories.”
Madison City Clerk Maribeth Witzel-Behl said the clerk’s office did not separate the more than 10,000 ballots from others that have been turned in or that have arrived by mail.
Witzel-Behl said the Clerk’s Office has already sorted them with other absentee ballots the city has received and organized them by ward and last name. She said there isn’t a way to determine which ballots were turned in at Democracy in the Park, making it virtually impossible for any legal challenge to block the ballots from being counted.
While the ballots have been sorted and alphabetized, they have not been counted. Under Wisconsin law, absentee ballots cannot be counted until 7 a.m. on Election Day.
So far, 89,305 of the city of Madison’s 185,466 registered voters have requested an absentee ballot.
As of Monday, Dane County has reported 52,886 absentee ballots returned, an increase of 20,482 ballots since Friday. So far 178,416 Dane County residents have requested an absentee ballot for the November election, second only to Milwaukee County’s 202,574 absentee requests.
Dane County, however, leads the state with the most ballots returned so far. Milwaukee County is second, with 27,037 absentee ballots returned; and Waukesha County third, with 20,120 ballots returned.
More than 1.1 million of Wisconsin’s roughly 3.5 million registered voters have already requested an absentee ballot.
Misha Tseytlin issued a cease-and-desist letter to the clerk’s office on Friday on behalf of the state’s two most powerful legislative Republicans, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester. He had sought to have the clerk cancel the event or, at the very least, keep any ballots collected as part of the effort separate from all the other ballots the office receives.
Tseytlin warned the ballots collected Saturday would be challenged in court and potentially invalidated.
During the Democracy in the Park event, Witzel-Behl said volunteers placed completed ballots into security bags that get locked with a tamper-evident seal. The security bags were zipped closed and secured shut with the seal bearing a unique serial number. Before transporting the ballots, volunteers documented how many ballots they were transporting inside of each bag, along with the serial number for the bag.
The clerk’s office finished sorting through the ballots from the event on Sunday, and voters can check the status of their ballot by visiting MyVote.wi.gov.
In his response to Tseytlin Saturday, Madison City Attorney Michael Haas said there was no legal support for the Republican leaders’ allegations that the event constituted an “illegal collection of ballots.”
“Absent any directive from the Wisconsin Elections Commission or a court, the City will proceed with Democracy in the Park, and it will process the ballots collected with other absentee ballots pursuant to Wisconsin Statutes,” Haas wrote. “All voters are welcome to participate and observe the process which is designed to bring the entire community together to participate in democracy. I trust that is a goal you and your clients can support.”
Andrew Hitt, chairman of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, said he has been speaking with the state party’s attorneys as well as attorneys for President Donald Trump’s campaign on the city park drop-offs. Hitt said the party also had observers watching several locations on Saturday.
“It certainly is a very unconventional approach that they are taking,” Hitt said on a call with reporters on Monday. “We’ll continue to evaluate, we’ll continue to watch very closely next weekend. … If anything improper is going on, we will be preparing to go to court even next Saturday if we need to to stop anything improper and ensure that the rules are being followed.”
With Wisconsin already seeing a surge in the number of requested absentee ballots for the November election, U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson told WISN-TV that the Republican-controlled state Legislature should meet to allow municipal clerks to begin counting absentee ballots before Election Day to speed up how soon results are known.
Wisconsin State Journal reporter Mitchell Schmidt contributed to this report.
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