Wisconsin presidential election results may not be available during election night, despite federal ruling

LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT) – A federal judge in Wisconsin ruled late this afternoon that absentee ballots in the state can be counted up to six days after election day as long as they are postmarked by Election Day.

The ruling, unless overturned, means that the outcome of the presidential race in Wisconsin likely will not be known for days after polls close.

Under current law, the deadline for returning an absentee ballot in order to have it counted is 8 p.m. on Election Day.

Democrats and their allies sued to extend the deadline.

A big reason why absentee ballots are backlogged is due to the record number of people deciding to vote absentee because of the pandemic.

To the surprise of no one, the city of La Crosse is handing more absentee ballot requests than usual.

“Over 9,500 absentee ballots have been requested and mailed out of my office,” La Crosse city clerk Teri Lehrke said.

Clerks are not allowed to start counting absentee ballots until election day.

“We’ll start to process them at the polling place as soon as possible after the polls open,” Lehrke said.

Lehrke says she was hoping the State Legislature would’ve given her the green light to start counting some absentee ballots before Election Day this year. But state law doesn’t allow that.

“So that would speed up the process because then the voters would not be inserting their ballots in envelopes,” Lehrke said.

Retired UW-La Crosse political science professor Joe Heim says it comes down to staffing.

“If you’re just a single town clerk and you’re the only person there, it’s very difficult to guarantee security when just one person is looking at the ballots,” Heim said.

Wisconsin lawmakers have talked about allowing clerks to count some absentee ballots early. In 2019, the State Assembly passed a bill for that reason, but the Senate never took action.

“And I think the Legislature has been reluctant to spend money on something like that in the past because there was no overriding need for it, until now,” Heim said.

Lehrke says there will be results on election night, but they might not be available when polls close.

“It’s not going to be early,” Lehrke said. “It will be probably be later than typical.”

She’s just hopeful every vote will get counted in a timely manner.

“You know, it’s something that we have to do,” Lehrke said. “You know, we train for, and we get the job done.”

Lehrke says the last district that reported during the 2016 election was at 3 a.m.

That same year, the city counted more than 8,500 absentee votes.

President Trump won Wisconsin over Hillary Clinton by less than a percentage point.