You know, we’ve been doing this for more than 200 years: voting for president.

Wisconsin a little less so. Badger state residents cast their first ballots for president in 1848, the year we became at state.

We’ve voted for Republican candidates 25 times and for Democratic candidates 17 times. And, over the course of those 43 presidential elections, we’ve chosen the winning candidate 33 times and the eventual loser 10 times. Add in this week’s results for the complete tally.

The point is, we’re not new at this and we should be getting it right by now; not only here in Wisconsin, but across the nation.

But no, in our highly charged partisan frenzy with political parties seeking every possible advantage to prevent opposing candidates from gaining office, we fight at every turn and go to court after court after court to “settle” disputes — sometimes with unsettling results.

This year, the COVID-19 year, we saw that in spades.

As election clerks struggled to deal with gathering and county votes in a fair and timely manner, they were whipsawed by last-minute court challenges and election law appeals and some voters were disenfranchised by court decisions that meant their ballots got tossed.

Here in Wisconsin, one fight was over mailed-in early or absentee ballots that were received by election clerks after Election Day. A lower court had called for the mailed-in ballots to be counted if they were received within six days of Nov. 3, but the U.S. Supreme Court flipped that decision in late October and said the ballots had to be in the hands of election clerks by 8 p.m. on Election Day.

But that wasn’t the case in Pennsylvania where the high court preserved a state court order extending the absentee ballot deadline.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote: “Different bodies of law and different precedents govern these two situations and require, in these particular circumstances, that we allow the modification of election rules in Pennsylvania but not in Wisconsin.”

Say what?!

That’s about as clear as mud. What is disconcerting is that this issue had already been raised — and bungled by the state Elections Commission — after the state Supreme Court ruled that mailed-in ballots had to be postmarked by the April 7 Election Day. The Elections Commission faced with a problem of determining how to judge mailed-in ballots that were smudged or unclear or — in some cases not postmarked at all — deadlocked 3-3 and punted the issue to local clerks, telling them: “Each municipality must determine whether the ballot was postmarked timely.”

Now there’s a nonstandard standard if we have ever seen one.

Such fights were not restricted to the Badger State, either. Minnesota had a similar postmark fight and the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered ballots received after 8 p.m. on Election Day be set aside — but made no determination on whether they would be valid, setting the stage for a post-election fight. In Houston, there was a dispute over whether drive-through ballots conducted by the clerk should be accepted; in several states there were fights over certifying signatures on early ballots — with some municipalities throwing them out if they didn’t match previous signatures, others using computer technology to do a signature check and still others either being lenient or directing poll workers to contact the voter to double-check.

We don’t need this kind of mess.

The massive use of early balloting by voters here in Wisconsin this year and across the country show us that, COVID-19 or not, this will be the wave of the future. To be clear, we have no issue with the court ruling that ballots have to be in by Election Day. In our view, the United States Postal Service should not be drawn into election matters by disputes over mail delivery times or postmarks. Voters themselves have the responsibility of making sure their ballot reaches the municipal clerk by Election Day — if they want to rely on the postal service for that, so be it, they’re taking that chance. With early balloting there is plenty of time to do that or to drop it off at the municipal clerk’s office in advance — just the same as having to go to the polls on Election Day.

What we don’t need is the last-minute court fights that change the rules in late October, disrupt previous decisions and cause disenfranchisement.

That needs to be fixed, both here in Wisconsin and across the country. And that is the responsibility of state legislatures, ours and others. Our wish list for other states, like Pennsylvania, would be that they allow clerks to start counting ballots when the polls open and not wait until they close in order to get timely results.

Like we said, we’ve been doing this for more than 200 years, we should be able to get it right by now. So, dear Legislature, get cracking. You’ve got four years to get it right and spare us the anguish of a messed-up sequel.


From an editorial in the Journal Times, Racine, Wis., Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.