Best practices for issuing/processing absentee ballots, working with USPS, and selecting polling places
With COVID-19, voting by mail has increased drastically in 2020, and with it, a unique set of challenges. Clerks found many creative solutions to these new challenges and have adapted to unprecedented times. This document will cover some best practices as learned from local clerks and the National Association for State Election Directors (NASED). You can read more resources from NASED here: https://www.nased.org/covid19.
The primary focus of this document will cover how to deal with an influx of absentee ballots. Additional information will be provided on how to sufficiently prepare your poll workers and facilities and how to best leverage your relationship with the United States Postal Service.
Preparing ahead of time:
Consider upcoming deadlines by looking at the Calendar of Election Events. Please note that absentee ballots must be issued by September 17, with an emphasis on military and overseas voters.
If needed, present a new polling place location to your municipal governing body. You may do this until 30 days prior. However, all in-person absentee locations must have been set by June 11, so these cannot be changed. More information about selecting a new polling place is below.
Find a location to organize absentee ballots if your office is not big enough to accommodate.
Reach out to local organizations, students, educators, government employees, and elected officials to find poll workers for November. If needed, you may deputize these individuals and they can help issue and process absentee ballots.
Select materials to use for training new poll workers. Consider using remote training options that can be found here: https://elections.wi.gov/covid-19/election-officials.
Consider buying additional supplies to help you organize your absentee ballot issuing and processing. Some items to consider are:
- Mail trays/mail carts on wheels
- Carts that can be locked or additional secure ballot boxes
- Folding tables and chairs (possibly rented)
- Storage racks
Please review the specific steps for organizing and processing absentee ballots, found at the end of this document.
Working with USPS:
Establish a working relationship with your local USPS office(s) early. You can set up a meeting with your local representative.
Tell USPS about your upcoming ballot deadlines.
If using a mail vendor, confirm that the EL-122 Certificate envelope will be printed in compliance with USPS standards.
Buy stamps or work with USPS to get postage indicia printed onto ballot envelopes. Please note that, per statute, all ballots sent within the United States must have return postage.
Tips for Organizing and Processing Absentee Ballots
As with every election this year, you will be seeing a much larger number of absentee ballots than you may have in past elections for the November General Election. With that in mind, here are a few tips to ensure you are preparing sufficiently in advance to make processing absentee ballots on Election Day as efficient as possible.
Preparing Absentee Ballots to be sent to the Polling Place or Central Count Site
When a ballot is received from a voter, examine the certificate envelope for sufficiency. The envelope must contain:
- The signature of the voter
- The signature of a witness
- The address of the witness
If the certificate envelope is missing any of these three required fields, please do what you can to contact the voter to advise them of their options, e.g., curing the insufficient certificate they sent in, spoiling the ballot, etc. However, if the insufficiency is not remedied by 8:00 p.m. on Election Day, the ballot will ultimately be rejected.
Be cognizant of the deadlines for spoiling absentee ballots and remember that, once the ballot has been delivered to the polling place or central count site, the voter may only remedy the insufficient certificate envelope they originally returned and may not spoil their absentee ballot and vote a new one in person.
While you may be working with voters to remedy any issues with certificate envelopes prior to Election Day, a good step to take as ballots arrive in your office is to sort them into two stacks and to clearly label each stack:
- Sufficient Certificate Envelopes
- Insufficient Certificate Envelopes
If time allows, you should still be trying to contact the voter to remedy an insufficient certificate envelope. However, having a clearly labeled stack of ballots that have sufficient envelopes will help your election inspectors know which ballots to get started on right away and that they should hold ballots with insufficient certificate envelopes for processing until after 8:00 p.m. on Election Day.
In addition to separating your absentee ballots based on sufficiency of the certificate envelope, you may also consider sorting the ballots alphabetically by ward. As always, the WEC does not recommend pre-numbering absentee ballots prior to Election Day, as the election inspectors processing the absentee ballots have the ultimate say in whether the envelope is sufficient and whether the ballot will be rejected at the polls. If a ballot has been pre-numbered with a voter number and is rejected, the process for sequential issuance of voter numbers is disrupted and may cause confusion. This could also lead to errors in reconciliation at the end of the night.
Please take any steps you can to efficiently sort and prepare your absentee ballots to be delivered to the polling place, but keep in mind that absentee ballots may not, under any circumstances, be opened or processed prior to 7:00 a.m. on Election Day.