A team of 400 workers assembled at Milwaukee’s Central Count facility on November 3 at 7:00 a.m. to begin opening absentee ballot envelops and prepare them for counting along with votes cast throughout Election Day.

The entire 4th floor of the building at 501 W. Michigan Street was set up to process boxes of ballots, and designed in pods with social distancing measures to protect workers as COVID-19 infections continue to spike across Wisconsin. The Election Commission’s theme was fitting for the conditions of 2020: Safe. Secure. Counted.

Absentee ballots take longer to process than ballots cast in-person on Election Day, because they must to be checked against poll books and verified for identification. Workers waved yellow fans to alert election officials to questions about how to handle ballots. As votes were sorted and recorded, everyone braced for a long night with three shifts scheduled to do the work.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and Claire Woodall-Voggs, executive director of the Milwaukee Election Commission, gave regular press briefings through the day to explain the process and offer status updates.

“This is a monumental election. The issues facing our city, state, and nation are incredibly important. I am pleased to report that more than 165,000 Milwaukeeans have already voted in this election,” said Mayor Tom Barrett. “As you know, Wisconsin is a very important state in this election. It is no exaggeration to say that every vote counts.”

Milwaukee’s absentee ballots for the 2020 election was already more than tripled the last presidential election’s 52,000 early votes. The total votes cast in Milwaukee for the 2016 presidential election was around 250,000.

“I am exceptionally proud of the work my staff has done to ensure this Election is safe and secure,” said Claire Woodall-Voggs, executive director of the Milwaukee Election Commission. “The ability to vote is a sacred right for Americans. As such, my pledge to my fellow Milwaukeeans is that my team and I have done all we can to ensure that your vote counts in the 414.”

Woodall-Vogg said Milwaukee had 12 machines that could each process between 1,500 and 2,000 ballots per hour. Milwaukee’s polling places saw regular streams of voters, though not as many of the longer lines that dominated in April. Milwaukee had 173 voting sites open for Election Day, more than the 168 in August, and way more than only five in April when COVID-19 first crippled the state.

Unlike in April, most municipalities opened a full set of polling places and installed an estimated 500 drop boxes to facilitate return of absentee ballots, as many voters sought to avoid the U.S. Postal Service, which has suffered from intentionally delayed deliveries and lost ballots in 2020.

On the morning of the election, Wisconsin voters more than doubled the 830,763 absentee ballots cast in the 2016 general election. As hospitals filled up with people infected with COVID-19, about 1.3 million voters in Wisconsin mailed in their ballots and another 650,000 avoided crowds by casting early in-person absentee votes.

State law does not allow poll workers to stop processing ballots once they begin, so central count facilities across the state worked into the wee hours of the morning on November 4 to finish their time-consuming absentee ballot counts.

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Lee Matz