The city of Madison Clerk's Office collected 10,813 absentee ballots at its "Democracy in the Park" event held Saturday, despite the threat of legal action from state Republican legislative leaders.
That number, reported by city officials Monday, dwarfs absentee ballot numbers from past elections. In the 2016 presidential election, close to 9,000 ballots were mailed to voters in Madison, and just over 6,000 were returned in total, according to numbers provided by the clerk's office via email Monday.
Saturday's event allowed pre-completed absentee ballots to be dropped off to poll workers who were stationed at more than 200 parks across Madison. Poll workers were also available to witness ballot signatures and register voters.
On Sept. 25, a day before the event was scheduled to take place, attorneys for Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald sent a cease-and-desist letter to the City Clerk's Office saying the ballot collection efforts were "ad hoc, unsecure, and unlawful."
Madison City Attorney Michael Haas responded in a letter Saturday, saying the allegations that the city's ballot collection events were unlawful were "broad and unsupported." Haas further argued GOP leaders may not have the grounds to challenge the ballot collection under regulations from the state Elections Commission, adding that those who abuse the right to challenge ballots "may be subject to sanctions under (state law)."
The event continued as scheduled Saturday.
More Voters Dropping Off Ballots
The challenge comes as some cities across the state are seeing increased demand for ballot drop boxes during the coronavirus pandemic.
In Superior, city officials began using pre-existing drop boxes for absentee ballots during the April 2020 elections. They've continued to use them for the November 2020 election as localities across the country look for new ways for people to vote safely during the outbreak.
Terri Kalan, Superior's city clerk, said the city doesn't track how many ballots have been returned through the mail versus how many have been dropped off via the city's two drop boxes. But Kalan said, as of Monday, it appeared that more residents were using the drop boxes to cast their ballots.
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"It seems people are a little bit leery of putting their ballots in the mail, so they feel more comfortable just dropping them in the drop box," Kalan said, adding that she expects the drop boxes to get even more use as Election Day nears because, "they know if they drop it off that we'll get it that day."
But Kalan said Superior does not plan to hold ballot collection events similar to Madison's. She said she had confidence that officials in Madison had security protocols in place at the event, but said she would be reluctant to do something similar in Superior out of concerns about ballot security.
On Friday, the Madison City Clerk's Office told The Associated Press that poll workers would use drop boxes and chain-of-custody forms to secure the ballots. In his letter Saturday, Haas wrote that the processes used at the event were "equivalent to the procedures used to secure all absentee ballots."
The city of Milwaukee has 15 ballot drop boxes for absentee voters this election cycle. Claire Woodall-Vogg, executive director of the city's Election Commission, said that an estimated 9,000 absentee ballots have been returned using the drop boxes so far.
"I would not be surprised if more than 50 percent of voters use a drop box in this election," Woodall-Vogg said via email Monday.
In Eau Claire, City Clerk Carrie Riepl said the city's four ballot drop boxes have been popular as well. Riepl said as of Monday, a little over 1,600 ballots had been returned using the city's boxes, making up more than half of the ballots that have been returned in the city.
"I would think that as Election Day gets closer and we mail ballots closer to the election, the drop boxes will become even more popular just due to the uncertain timing if you put a ballot in the mail," Riepl said.
Another "Democracy in the Park" event in Madison is scheduled for Oct. 3. Haas said Saturday the Clerk's Office would proceed with the events "absent any directive from the Wisconsin Elections Commission or a court."
Attorneys for Vos and Fitzgerald did not respond to requests for comment regarding additional legal action.