Early voting gets off to ‘crazy busy’ start

Clerk surprised by lines at City Hall as pandemic-wary voters cast in-person absentee ballots by the hundreds on first day

SHORTLY BEFORE THE polls in Port opened at 7:30 a.m. Tuesday, people lined up inside and outside City Hall to cast ballots on the first day of in-person, absentee voting. Photo by Bill Schanen IV
Ozaukee Press staff

Even before Port Washington City Hall opened at 7:30 a.m. Tuesday, the line of people waiting to cast their ballots snaked past the neighboring Java Dock coffeehouse.

It was the first day of in-person absentee voting, and there was a line for much of the day as 381 people cast their ballots, City Clerk Susan Westerbeke said. Another 13 registered to vote in the Nov. 3 presidential election.

“It was crazy busy,” Westerbeke said. “They (the poll workers) said it felt like 500 people came through.”

The lines on Tuesday were surprising, Westerbeke said.

“I thought there would be a few people in line (first thing in the morning),” she said. “I didn’t expect as many people as we had in line.

“I think we’re going to be busy for the next two weeks given the pandemic. There has been a big switch to absentee and early voting.”

In a year with a contentious presidential election, when a pandemic has people avoiding contact with others as much as possible and political groups are calling into question the veracity of absentee ballots, it is perhaps not surprising that many people are flocking to the polls early to ensure their votes are counted.

By 10 a.m. on Tuesday in Port Washington, 3,346 absentee ballots had been issued both to people who had them mailed to their homes and to voters at City Hall.

That’s roughly 40% of the city’s 8,268 registered voters.

Turnout with this election is expected to be high, with Westerbeke predicting the city could reach 90% or greater. 

“This is a presidential election,” she said. “I would think, especially with the emails and calls we’ve received, we could expect this to be our biggest turnout.”

  People have been excited to cast their votes, Westerbeke said, noting she’s seen a lot of people taking selfies while dropping off their ballots or next to the “vote” sign outside City Hall.

“That’s great,” she said. “You want the voters engaged and exercising their right.”

City Hall will be open from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays through Thursday, Oct. 29, and from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday, Oct. 30, for in-person voting and registration. Voters need to have a photo identification card with them to cast their ballots.

After Oct. 30, residents have to wait to vote until election day, Tuesday, Nov. 3.

What most people voting early don’t understand, Westerbeke said, is that they are actually casting an absentee ballot.

“When you come to vote in person, it’s the same process,” she said. “We’re just cutting out the mail service.”

With mailed absentee ballots, people fill out their ballot, place it in a special envelope and sign it. A witness must also sign the envelope and add their address.

When the envelope is received at City Hall, it is checked for the signature and witness information, Westerbeke said. If any of those is missing, election workers will try to contact the voter to get the situation rectified by the end of election night.

“I’m pleasantly surprised, the vast majority are coming back completed,” Westerbeke said. “We make every effort to reach people if there’s a problem. We don’t want to reject anything.”

When casting an absentee ballot in person, the voter also fills out their ballots and places it in an envelope that they then sign. But poll workers serve as the witnesses and are there to check the envelopes to ensure they are complete.

With both in-person and mailed absentee voting, poll workers log the ballots. Each envelope has a bar code that’s scanned and recorded. When the poll books are printed for election day, they show whether a person has applied for an absentee ballot and if the absentee ballot has been returned. That way, voters can’t cast absentee and in-person ballots on election day.

The sealed envelopes are sorted by ward and, to ensure the integrity of the vote, they are secured in a locked room.

People can apply for an absentee ballot at City Hall or online through the city website or myvote.wi.gov through Oct. 30, but time is getting short to make sure the voter receives the ballot and has time to get it back to City Hall by 8 p.m. on Nov. 3, Westerbeke said.

“They really need to do that right away,” she said.

Absentee ballots must be received by 8 p.m. on election day in order to be counted. They may be mailed or dropped off at City Hall.

If people vote absentee but change their mind, they can come to City Hall and have the first ballot “spoiled,” or cancelled, Westerbeke said. 

A number of people are also coming to in-person early voting after they have applied for an absentee ballot, she said. In those cases, a poll worker must “spoil” the ballot before the voter receives a new ballot. 

Every ballot issued must be accounted for, Westerbeke said, and the numbers reconciled with the ballots received and cast before the election is completed.

“There are many layers of auditing and reconciling,” Westerbeke said. “I tell the poll workers, this is about accuracy, not speed.”

On election day, poll workers will remove the ballots from the envelopes and log them, then put them through the counting machines, Westerbeke said. They do this when they have a lull in in-person voting or after the polls close if there isn’t time during the day.

“Absentee ballots cannot be put through the machines until election day,” Westerbeke said. “We will continue (working) until every vote has been counted. If that takes all night on the third of November, it takes all night.”

Absentee ballots must be received at City Hall by 8 p.m. on election day in order to count, Westerbeke said, unless the courts rule otherwise, as they have in other states. In Pennsylvania, for example, the Supreme Court let stand a ruling that ballots received as long as three days after the election should still be counted as long as they were mailed by Nov. 3.

Westerbeke said Port Washington has enough poll workers to staff this election, even though a number of older workers have declined to work this election due to the pandemic.

“We’re in good shape,” she said, with 68 workers trained for election day.

The workers include a number of high school students who will work as greeters and help check people in at the polls.

Westerbeke said she encourages people with questions to call City Hall, noting they often see or hear things on the national news that apply to other states, not Wisconsin.

“We’re here to help people,” she said. “We want people to vote.”


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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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