Occasionally we are tasked with writing an editorial that is dangerous perhaps more in timing and presumption, rather than content. This is a week where we take that risk.
To be frank and open, this column was written before the polls were officially closed, with a press time thick in the middle of the evening of voting. This editorial may print and we find ourselves waking up Wednesday morning with a clear result. More likely than not, we will find ourselves waking up to a result that is and will not be clear for weeks, or months. This editorial is in response to that likely outcome.
We are lucky insofar as we reside in a rural area where it is likely we will be able to see our unofficial votes tabulated on election night. Much of the country isn’t this lucky and resides in urban areas where there are an overwhelming number of absentee ballots and a patchwork of laws allowing or forbidding election workers from counting ballots ahead of election day.
Clerks from across the area are reporting record numbers of absentee ballots, and most—luckily—have the poll workers needed to ensure a quick and precise unofficial count on election night.
We are reminded of these words, “Due to the pandemic and the high number of absentee ballots, it will likely be Wednesday before all the unofficial results are in [for Wisconsin],” says Meagan Wolfe, Wisconsin’s chief election official. “It doesn’t mean there’s a problem — just that election officials are doing their jobs to make sure every legitimate ballot is counted accurately.”
As we watch the results pour in, on election night, on Wednesday morning and likely for days after, we need to be reminded that these results are unofficial for several reasons.
We’ll let the Wisconsin Election Commission (WEC) describe the next steps: the second step of the certification process is at the county level. Each county has a board of canvassers which must start meeting by 9 a.m. on Tuesday, November 10 to begin certifying official results. These are also public meetings. The county board of canvassers is made up of the county clerk and two other people. County clerks are elected on a partisan basis, so one of the other two members must be from the opposite party of the county clerk. The deadline for counties to certify is November 17.
If the election is close, meaning within 1% of the winner’s total vote, the second-place candidate has the right to request a recount. Wisconsin does not have automatic recounts, even if the unofficial results are extremely close. There is no cost to the losing candidate if the difference between the leading candidate is 0.25% or less. If the difference is more than 0.25%, the WEC will estimate the cost, which must be paid before the recount begins
After a recount, or if there is no recount, the third step of the certification process begins. The WEC staff receives results from the counties, rechecks all the counties’ numbers and combines them to arrive at totals for legislative, congressional and statewide races.
The third step also includes random audits of 5% of the voting equipment used to tally votes. The day after the election, the WEC will randomly select more than 180 wards or reporting units for audits. The municipal clerks in these jurisdictions must then hand count all the paper ballots twice to make sure the total matches the results from the voting equipment. These audits are also public. In 2018, the WEC voted unanimously not to certify the results of the election until all the audits have been successfully completed.
The statutory deadline for the Chair of the WEC to certify statewide results is December 1. The WEC is having a regular meeting that day, and certification will happen during that public meeting.
After certification by the Chair of the WEC, the official results are provided to the Governor’s Office, which prepares a “certificate of ascertainment” for president, vice president and presidential electors for the election. The certificate lists each presidential and vice-presidential candidate, their electors, and the total number of votes each received. This certificate is signed by the Governor who also affixes the Great Seal of the State of Wisconsin to the certificate. It is then sent to the U.S. General Services Administrator. This is done on or before the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December, which is Dec. 14 this year. In Wisconsin, the state legislature plays no role in certifying or deciding which slate of electors vote in the Electoral College.
At noon that same day, electors for president and vice president meet at the state capitol. At that meeting, the electors vote for president and vice president. They must vote for the candidates of the party that nominated them.
We’re a republic and, for better or worse, the president is elected by the Electoral College, casting ballots on Dec. 14, not directly by the people on Election Day. Dec. 14 is some time away, and the electoral ballots are not even counted by Congress until Jan. 6, 2021. So let’s take a deep breath.
The fears of potential civil (or less than civil) unrest from either or both sides is a legitimate fear when people rush to judgement. That concern hits close to home, Valley Sentinel staff have family members in the National Guard that have been called up in preparation for the uncertainty we’ll all likely face in the coming days. More likely than not, members of our community are in the same boat.
Unless the result is clear and convincing, and perhaps still if it is, we must resist the jump to judgement following any attempt by either presidential candidate to prematurely declare victory.
This is not to say that any attempt to invalidate or undermine the results by either candidate shouldn’t be resisted. Rather, it is a caution that there is potential we face murky days ahead and that we need to respect the process, while ensuring all of the votes are counted.