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Wisconsin's August primaries viewed by state officials as "good test run" for November

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Wisconsin's second statewide primaries, which took place Tuesday amid the coronavirus pandemic, went more smoothly than its April presidential primary, with few reported issues. 

It was far different than the election four months ago, which saw long lines in some cities and clerks overwhelmed by the flood of absentee ballot requests. 

While Tuesday's primaries for congressional and state legislative seats were a good test for clerks and voters, the number of people voting represents a fraction of what's expected in November. Since 2000, August primary turnout has ranged from about 10% to 25%. Presidential elections in that same time frame have drawn at least two-thirds of the state's voters. 

"In November it'll be about three to four times the scale of what we saw [Tuesday]," said Claire Woodall-Vogg, the executive director of the city of Milwaukee Election Commission. "[Tuesday] was a good test run, but we definitely have some lessons learned, ways to make it more efficient."

Another absentee voting surge

It appears most voters cast absentee ballots in the August primary. By Wednesday morning, 593,774 ballots had been returned out of the 907,422 requested, according to the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC). Just over 106,000 absentee ballots were returned in the 2018 primary. 

It marked the second statewide election with a surge in absentee voting. A record 1,157,599 people voted absentee in April and clerks struggled to keep up with fulfilling the requests. The increase in absentee applications, along with Postal Service issues and delays and glitches on the absentee website, meant thousands did not receive their ballots until after Election Day — if they came at all. 

Many clerks told CBS News they felt better about handling the increased number of requests compared to previous August primaries, though it put a lot of stress on clerks, especially in smaller municipalities. Woodall-Vogg said there were issues delivering about 270 ballots to voters at the end of June, but the city canceled those ballots and sent replacements. Wisconsin Watch reported that Wauwatosa had 421 ballots ordered in late June that weren't initially delivered. Other clerks were not aware of widespread issues with absentee ballots not reaching voters before Tuesday. 

"We had the luxury of time that we didn't have in April, where we only had like three or four weeks between when the pandemic was declared and when the election was," said Jim Verbick, deputy city clerk in Madison. "I feel like our office learned a lot, the state learned a lot, and the voters learned a lot."

In Milwaukee, over 50,000 absentee ballots were returned for the primary and Woodall-Vogg expects 150,000 to 200,000 in November. Many voters dropped off ballots on Election Day, causing election workers to count ballots until about 2:30am on Wednesday.

Voters appeared to harbor concerns about the Postal Service. About half of the absentee ballots at the early in-person absentee voting sites in the week before the election came from voters dropping off ballots, rather than coming in to cast them on the spot, Woodall-Vogg said.

"Based on what I saw [Tuesday] and really, what we've seen over the past week or two, is that voters are not wanting to put their ballots back in the hands of the post office," Woodall-Vogg said. She plans to add more drop boxes in November and has expanded early voting options to accommodate for that. 

"I have more confidence today than I had on Monday — let's say that — that things will go more smoothly (in November)," said Shauntay Nelson, the Wisconsin state director for All Voting is Local. "I also have caution because of the fact that there will be so many different things that will be at play in November."

Any inclement weather, when people are alerted about changes to polling locations and whether there will be enough workers to keep enough polling places open will all affect how Election Day will go. 

What's not clear yet is how many ballots will be rejected, either because they arrived after the 8 p.m. Central Time deadline on Election Day or for other reasons. A CBS News analysis of state data found 1.9% of returned absentee ballots were rejected in April. 

In-person voting

The lasting images of Wisconsin's April election were the long lines at polling sites in Milwaukee and Green Bay, when the cities could only open a few locations due to a massive shortage of workers. That was not the case Tuesday. Though turnout was lower, more polling places were open, and more election workers were available.

Milwaukee opened 168 sites on Tuesday, compared to just 5 in April, Woodall-Vogg said. The city recruited more than 600 new poll workers to make up nearly half of the 1,400 election workers. In November, Woodall-Vogg wants to have 2,400 poll workers to staff the 180 polling sites that are usually open in Milwaukee. 

"I don't think that our in-person at the polls voting could have gone any better than it did," Woodall-Vogg said. "Our election workers felt safe, our voters felt safe."

Madison opened 89 polling sites on Tuesday, compared to 66 in April. Green Bay, which opened two sites in April, had 17 polling locations on Tuesday. 

Still, finding enough poll workers was a struggle for many local clerks, said Diane Coenen, the president of the Wisconsin Municipal Clerks Association and city clerk in Oconomowoc. A week before the election, there was a shortage of more than 900 poll workers around the state and Governor Tony Evers had to mobilize the National Guard to fill the gap. 

In Kenosha, some National Guard members were redeployed from a central counting facility to a polling place where a few workers did not show up, but the site opened on time, according to WEC spokesperson Reid Magney. 

Polling locations were provided with PPE and sanitary equipment, and voters told CBS News they felt safe inside. It was recommended that voters wear masks, but they were not required to. Magney said there were very few issues caused by voters not wearing masks, but there were reports of poll workers not wearing them, even though that was required. 

Though most people decided to vote absentee, some went to the polls because it's part of their routine and they like seeing their ballot go into a machine.

"I feel a lot more confident passing my vote in and watching it be counted," said Kathryn Paulsen, who voted in Waukesha on Tuesday.

While there weren't widespread reports of absentee ballots getting to voters in time, Camille Mays said she went to vote at Milwaukee's Washington High School of Information Technology on Tuesday morning because her absentee ballot never came. She said she requested one for the year back in the spring and plans to try to vote absentee in November, though she was "very angry" that her ballot didn't arrive in August.

"I'm going to request an absentee ballot, but I'm going to vote regardless," Mays said. "Nothing will stop me from voting."

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