Write-in candidates mean headaches for Onalaska election officials

The Wisconsin primary election is less than two weeks away.

While the presidential candidates are dominating the headlines, in Onalaska, election officials are gearing up for an unusual election thanks to three write-in candidates.

Current Onalaska Mayor Joe Chilsen and school board incumbents Ann Garrity and Tim Smaby were left off the April 5 ballot due to an issue with their nomination papers.

With absentee voting beginning a few days ago, election officials in Onalaska already know by the high number of votes already in, they’ll have a lot of ballots to count this election.

Having one candidate running a write-in campaign is “very unusual” and most often not successful, said University of Wisconsin-La Crosse political science professor Joe Heim.

“The campaigns have to spend more money, you have to educate the voters basically and let them know how to do this, make sure they’re aware of it,” Heim said.

City Clerk Cari Burmaster said with three candidates hoping Onalaska voters write in their names on the April ballot, it will be unusual and no easy task for election officials in the city either.

“The people who do the write-in, we have to separate those ballots out from the other ballots and we have to hand-count those ballots,” Burmaster said.

She said because the ballots will be counted by hand – and that process can’t begin until after the polls close at 8 p.m. – it’s, obviously, going to take a bit longer to get results in for the mayor and school board races.

“So they have wait until all the ballots are fed into the machine before we can get that tape total to start that process,” Burmaster said.

Both Heim and Burmaster believe the best way for a voter to make sure their vote counts, no matter what race or who they’re voting for, is to be educated when they head to the polls.

“Be educated about who you’re going to vote for, know what their name is, know how it’s spelled. It just makes things a lot easier and a lot cleaner,” Burmaster said.

The Wisconsin Government Accountability Board estimates 40 percent of eligible voters in the state will head to the polls, which would be the highest turnout for a presidential primary since 1980.

Voters writing in a candidate on their ballot are not required to spell the candidate’s name correctly, it just has to be close enough for election officials to know who they are voting for. Burmaster recommends knowing how to spell a candidate’s name because if it is spelled incorrectly, a voter is leaving it up to the election inspector to determine the voter’s intent.