A Field Guide to Wisconsin Election Officials

State elections officials and their staff

In 2015, legislation was passed to abolish the nonpartisan Government Accountability Board and in 2016 to give its elections-administration responsibilities to a new commission appointed by the legislature, the Elections Commission. Many don’t realize, however, that the abolition legislation was aimed very directly at the Board itself and at the GAB director–and even then, the intention was more to weaken their ethics-watchdog responsibilities, not their election-administration responsibilities.  When the WEC replaced the GAB, it inherited its election-administration responsibilities pretty much intact. The new Elections Commission is designed so that it will more easily deadlock–its members are appointed to represent partisan interests, where the old board was selected for nonpartisanship to represent the public interest. But so far (March 2017), the new Commission has largely conducted itself well.

It’s helpful to distinguish between the Board or commission and its staff. The board’s authority over local election administrators, particularly elected county clerks, is much more limited than most citizens assume, and as a result it does not take initiative to investigate the quality of Wisconsin elections or to propose improvements.  

However, because its staff provide training to local election officials, those officials often turn to them for guidance about elections administration. This gives the staff more control over elections administration than is apparent by reading the state statutes.

The state agency’s statutory duties for elections include a lot of forms development—basic requirements for ballots, reporting forms, etc.—and responsibilities like certifying which candidates have completed the requirements to be on the statewide ballot. No voting machines may be used in Wisconsin unless the manufacturer and model have been reviewed and approved by the state agency. The WEC certifies statewide election results as final, but does not check accuracy before certification.  

One big state responsibility—one WEC does generally well—is educating voters about the elections process and results. Visit their website, follow links from that page, and you will be able to find the name and contact information for your local elections officials; read through all the instructions manuals that clerks use to run elections; find precinct-level results for recent elections, and more. One caution: detailed information such as the list of types of voting equipment used in each municipality can be outdated.

County clerks (and their sidekicks, the County Board of Canvassers)

County clerks are elected officials who serve four-year terms. It’s a partisan office, but do not assume that any individual clerk is an active partisan until you get to know him or her. Although clerks can be pressured by their political parties, their job is not the sort of policy-making position that tends to attract ideologues. Most county clerks just want to do a good job—one that includes making sure elections are honest and fair.

County clerk is a full-time job. Elections administration is one of the clerks’ biggest jobs, though their responsibilities vary among counties. County clerks have surprisingly little responsibility on Election Day itself. Their work comes mostly before and after Election Day—things like getting the local ballots approved by WEC and getting them printed. After municipalities have sent in their election results, county clerks send the results to the WEC. Most municipalities also rely on the county clerk to store elections equipment and records such as marked ballots and registered voters’ voting records between elections.

Because of their responsibilities related to ballots and election set-up, county clerks have developed the lead role in selecting the voting machines for the municipalities within their county, although the municipalities purchase the machines.

The Board of Canvassers consists of the county clerk and two qualified voters from the county selected by the county clerk, one of whom must be a member of a political party other than the clerk’s. The county board of canvassers has the only statutory responsibility assigned to anyone for making sure votes were counted accurately, and even that isn’t as clear as it should be. The county board of canvassers must, at some time during the week following an election, meet and “open and publicly examine the returns” from the municipalities. If the board notices that “any of the returns received are so informal or defective that the board cannot intelligently canvass them,” they must return the election reports to the municipality to be cleared up.

Municipal Clerks (City, Village, or Town)

Municipal clerks DO MOST OF THE WORK!  They are nonpartisan elected officials (usually in the towns and smaller villages) or employees appointed by the municipal board. Only in the cities and larger villages is the position full-time, so many municipal clerks—particularly in the townships–have other day jobs and do the municipal work in their spare time.

Municipal clerks have most of the rubber-on-the-road responsibility for running our elections. They handle voter registration; recruit and train poll workers (called ‘chief inspectors’ and ‘elections inspectors’). They choose the polling places; purchase the voting machines and store them between elections; and distribute absentee ballots. The municipal clerk is responsible for making sure the voting machines are tested, set, adjusted, working correctly, sealed, and certified at the start of Election Day.

With their inspectors, municipal clerks set up the polling places and operate them all day. They make sure the events on Elections Day that might affect the vote-count are documented; oversee the counting of the votes; complete a ‘canvass report’ describing how the election went; secure the ballots; and transmit the canvass report and election returns to the county clerk on election night.  Municipal clerks also appoint boards of canvassers, but the tasks of the municipal board of canvassers are relatively limited and often carried out on election night right at each polling place.

Despite their substantial statutory responsibility for the entire elections process—including the counting of votes—municipal clerks tend to defer to county clerks’ leadership and advice, and county clerks defer to WEC staff. However, if a local election official knows you as a local voter with an ongoing interest in accurate, transparent elections, chances are that any request you make to view election records (including ballots) and to observe procedures (even those that are not specifically identified in statute as an opportunity for public observation) will be sincerely considered and frequently agreed to.

Further reference

Wisconsin election statutes –  Don’t be intimidated. They are not bedtime reading, but people with less intelligence than you have read and understood them. 

That link goes to Chapter 5, General Provisions; Ballots and Voting Systems. Change the ‘5’ in that website address to read the other chapters:

  • Chapter 6, Electors (who may vote, voter registration, the voting process, etc.);
  • Chapter 7, Election Officials and Boards;
  • Chapter 8, Nominations, Primaries, Elections;
  • Chapter 9, Post-election actions; Direct Legislation  (recounts, recalls, and referenda);
  • Chapter 10, Election Dates and Notices;
  • Chapter 11, Campaign Financing; and
  • Chapter 12, Prohibited Election Practices

Election Administration Manual

This manual is the main reference document for all local elections officials and citizens who want to know how elections are run in Wisconsin.

Election Day Manual

This manual is the clerks’ step-by-step instructions for Election Day. If you observe at the polls, print this out and take it with you.  You can also find this document by going to http://gab.wi.gov/elections-voting and clicking on “Legal resources,” then clicking on “Click here to access the Election Day Manual,” then scrolling down until you can click on “Election Day Manual.pdf”

Information and instructions for citizen observers

Read these instructions before you observe at any polls, and follow them. They are not difficult or complicated.

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