The Wisconsin Legislative Audit Bureau (LAB) was directed by the Joint Legislative Audit Committee (JLAC) to do an elections administration audit on February 11, 2021. The highly anticipated final report is now published.

The City of Madison (2nd most populous in Wisconsin) and Milwaukee County (most populous) did not allow LAB to physically handle election records, including ballots and absentee ballot certificates, citing chain of custody concerns. Along with another small town that refused, 18.9% of all ballots cast in Wisconsin were inaccessible to this LAB audit.

The LAB audit is only one of several ongoing election integrity efforts in Wisconsin. An investigation with subpoena power is led by a former Supreme Court Justice, Michael Gableman acting as Special Counsel. Various legislation has been introduced to reform election law. Reps Janel Brandtjen and Timothy Ramthun are still pushing for a full forensic audit of ballots and machines.

Keeping in mind that the certified totals that gave Joe Biden Wisconsin’s electoral votes have him winning the state by about 20,500 votes, here are a few of the more significant takeaways of Friday’s LAB audit report.

Registration

  • 950,000+ voters were found to be newly registered in 2020 alone (~3.3 million Wisconsinites voted in total). Half of those registered online, and ~6% by mail.
  • 45,000+ of those newly registered voters provided personally identifiable information during registration that did not match existing data from the WI Department of Transportation (DOT) (vehicle registrations, driver’s licenses, state identification cards). For 13,000+ more, no attempt was made to match the information with DOT data.

Absentee Ballots

  • There is a sizeable gap between the county with the highest percentage of voters voting by absentee (74.4%) and the county with the lowest (26.3%).
  • The absentee certificate is typically the envelope in which the ballot is returned to the election clerk. ~7% of a sampling of absentee certificates had incomplete information– mostly partial witness addresses—but less than 0.1% of absentee ballots were rejected (absentee ballots can be rejected by the clerk if the certificates are incomplete). Simple extrapolation implicates as many as 100,000 certificates with incomplete information statewide.
  • Statutes require that the certificates include voter signature, witness signature, and witness address. Almost all certificates reviewed had voter signatures, though no review was reported as having been completed that would determine whether those signatures matched existing signatures in voter registration and other state data.
  • Absentee ballots can be ‘remade’ if the equipment cannot read it. A sampling of ballots that were counted at central counting locations revealed 1.4% of them had been remade. Though that sample is not random, it would extrapolate to 28,000 statewide.
  • Municipal election clerks did not initial absentee ballot certificates consistently as required by statutes, which indicates that in some cases, that ballot must not be counted.


Electronic Voting Machines

  • Only half of a sampling of municipalities completed statutorily required testing of electronic voting equipment within 10 days of the election.
  • ~13% of election day forms were not initialed as they should have been to indicate verification of the integrity of the tamper-proof seals on electronic voting machines.

Administration by the Wisconsin Elections Commission

  • The Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC) did not consistently obtain data from the 3rd party Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC) that can be used to compare both inter-and intra-state data toward voter roll accuracy. Membership to the system is required by statute, but consistent data policy is not.
  • WEC provided guidance that did not comply with state statutes regarding absentee voting by indefinitely confined voters, dropboxes, relocating polling places, and adjourning on election night. That guidance is the subject of the ongoing Special Counsel election integrity investigation.
  • WEC did not complete statutorily required error rate analysis of electronic voting equipment across the state.
  • WEC received 1,521 election-related concerns through its website. The commission was not required and did not track whether or how they responded to those concerns.

The report is broken down into the following sections:

  • Training
  • Maintenance of Voter Registration Records
  • Absentee Ballots
  • Ballot Processing
  • Electronic Voting Equipment
  • Post-Election Audit
  • Complaints Filed with Clerks
  • Complaints and Concerns Filed with WEC
  • Election Recount Costs

LAB opens its report by defining its own civic mission:

The Legislative Audit Bureau supports the Legislature in its oversight of Wisconsin government and its promotion of efficient and effective state operations by providing nonpartisan, independent, accurate, and timely audits and evaluations of public finances and the management of public programs.

The report summary states:

Because our audit was not approved until three months after the November 2020 General Election, we did not directly observe Election Day practices. Therefore, to complete this audit, we relied on available evidence we were able to access. We contacted WEC’s staff, surveyed all 1,835 municipal clerks and 72 county clerks in April 2021, contacted 179 clerks to obtain additional information about elections administration issues, analyzed voter registration data, physically reviewed 14,710 certificates that accompanied absentee ballots returned to clerks in 29 municipalities throughout the state, reviewed the results of 175 statutorily required tests of electronic voting equipment that clerks in 25 municipalities completed before the November 2020 General Election, and reviewed all 45 sworn, written complaints pertaining to the General Election that were filed with WEC as of late-May 2021.

We make 30 recommendations to WEC’s staff for various improvements and include 18 issues for legislative consideration.

The first three appendices list the WEC Commissioners, the title of each municipal clerk and county clerk that was contacted by LAB, and each of the 3rd party groups that were contacted as a result of being associated with reports of elections administration issues. Appendix 4 charts the results of the sampling of Absentee Ballot Certificates that LAB reviewed. Appendix 6 charts the results of LAB’s review of whether electronic voting machine tests were conducted by each municipality as required by law. Appendix 7 lists recommendations LAB is making to the WEC; Appendix 8 lists legislative considerations for lawmakers. Appendix 10 shows the number of indefinitely confined individuals who were able to vote without providing photo ID in each county.

The scope of the audit allowed auditors the latitude to review election processes in its 1,849 municipalities, including voter registration, absentee voting, electronic voting equipment, any recounts that took place, and election laws. In addition to the authority to review the performance, methodology, and error rate of each Wisconsin electoral jurisdiction’s voting system, LAB could also report on adherence to state election law by administrators and municipal clerks in them. LAB’s audit was also granted authority to review conduct by the WEC, including its handling of complaints made against election officials and efforts to maintain the accuracy of voter rolls.

LAB notes that upon publication of the report, and submission to the JLAC members in the state Senate and Assembly, legislation may be introduced or hearings called based on the findings.

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