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The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Recent election review reveals ineligible voters, shows Wisconsin’s decentralized election system

Small number of voters caught casting ballots illegally exposes need to evaluate Wisconsin’s election system
Katie Cooney

A recent election review reveals a small percentage of ballots were cast illegally in past election by those who were determined “incompetent” by the state, according to Channel3000. The conversation now centers on the definition of “incompetent.”

Under Wisconsin law, individuals deemed incompetent cannot vote without the help of a guardian. Individuals are considered incompetent if a court proceeding finds one is unfit to manage one’s own affairs due to a mental condition, according to Wisconsin statutes on guardianship and conservatorship.

The percentage of incompetent voters who slipped through the system is relatively low, but the audit reveals issues with the communication between courts regarding those determined adjudicated incompetent by the court, University of Wisconsin Elections Research Center director Barry Burden said. 


“The Elections Commission has been able to integrate that with the voter registration database things like data from the Department of Corrections on who was incarcerated or who’s on probation and parole and wouldn’t have voting rights,” Burden said. “That information gets connected to the voting system more consistently. But this issue of voters who are determined to be incompetent by courts has never really been integrated into the system.”

The main issue is the courts and the municipal clerks really do not communicate, according to Burden. 

The state of Wisconsin has municipal level elections, which differ from county level elections that most other states have. There are about 1,900 different municipal clerks that work on registering voters and sending ballots out, staffing polling locations and running polling places, Dane County elections specialist Rachel Rodriguez said.

This makes for a very decentralized system, which can create challenges with coordinating and distributing information, Burden said. 

“Wisconsin doesn’t have a great system for clerks to identify voters who may have been adjudicated incompetent by a court,” Rodriguez said. “We have found, just in our office, that there are people who have been adjudicated incompetent that are still remaining registered to vote. We just don’t have a good way of identifying those people now.” 

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This decentralized system allows each small municipality to determine its polling places and hours. The clerks learn what works best for the area and adjust as needed, according to Rodriguez.

But still, there is no real system that allows clerks to identify those ineligible to vote for various reasons, such as probation, parole, or those identified as adjudicated incompetent by the court, Rodriguez said. 

One of the main critiques about the Wisconsin system is that laws are not implemented evenly across the state, which is hard to monitor because of the decentralized system and the municipal strategy of the system. Most municipal clerks are part-time workers with other jobs, only working a few hours a week, or even a few hours a year, and do not have access to appropriate resources for this Burden said. 

Additionally there is a general lack of knowledge about who exactly is eligible to vote. If the public and the clerks were better educated about voter eligibility, many issues would be less prevalent and problematic, Burden said. 

“There are lots of people who are not deemed incompetent but are under the care of someone else,” Burden said. “They have a guardian and they may have home health care or other kinds of things to meet their needs, but they’re still eligible to vote if they haven’t been deemed incompetent by a court and none of that matters for their voting rights. I think lack of information in the public is contributing to the trouble.”

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Because of the highly decentralized nature of the way elections are currently run in Wisconsin, there won’t be a standard way of doing things from community to community, Rodriguez said.

As a result, the state should aim to find a better way of communicating data across Wisconsin, as it would help many of the issues that have been arising in recent elections, especially in the case of voter eligibility, Burden said. 

In terms of legislative fixes, a few options have been discussed, but nothing has been decided on yet. Elections could be shifted to the county level instead of the municipal level, but both clerks and voters do not support this idea as it would change so much about elections in the state, Burden said. 

Another proposed idea is giving the Wisconsin Elections Commission more authority to police the process and enforce laws across the state, but there is almost no interest in this idea either, Burden said. 

More recently, Wisconsin has joined the Electronic Registration Information Center. About 30 states are members of the ERIC, which allows these states to share data with one another and other agencies in the state to identify things like voters registered in multiple states, voters who have died, voters that have moved and more, Burden said.

“That’s been a really helpful tool to try to keep the roles clean and identify who eligible voters are and that involves the DMV and other agencies in Wisconsin as well,” Burden said. “So that’s facilitated that kind of communication around data between state agencies. But it’s still hard to communicate back and forth between local clerks and the state elections commission. It’s just a work in progress.”

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