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Ballots await processing Nov. 3 at the City of Milwaukee Central Count Facility (Mark Hoffman/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel). Ballots await processing Nov. 3 at the City of Milwaukee Central Count Facility (Mark Hoffman/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel).

Ballots await processing Nov. 3 at the City of Milwaukee Central Count Facility (Mark Hoffman/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel).

Eric Litke
By Eric Litke January 15, 2021

Yes, slow absentee count explains supposed “ballot dump” in Milwaukee

If Your Time is short

  • A large number of heavily Democratic ballots in Milwaukee were among the last reported on election night.

  • But this was both expected and legitimate. As LeMahieu notes, those votes were simply reported last because Milwaukee had more absentee ballots due to its size.

  • Wisconsin is one of a handful of states that doesn’t allow election workers to begin processing absentee ballots until Election Day.

Votes from the November election have now been counted, recounted, reviewed by state and local officials and used to nominate electors — which in turn were counted, then confirmed by Congress Jan. 6.

This process confirmed Democrat Joe Biden as the winner of the presidential election.

Along the way we’ve seen hundreds (if not thousands) of fact checks and dozens of court decisions explaining why the stolen election narrative fails to hold water once claims are examined closely.

Nevertheless, the baseless fraud claims put forth by President Donald Trump and his Republican allies have persisted and remain accepted among a large slice of American conservatives.

Prominent among these is the idea of ballot "dumps" — where the late reporting of largely Democratic totals in several states are seen as suspicious or proof of malfeasance.

But the new Republican leader of the Wisconsin state Senate says that’s nonsense.

Talking about the need to restore voters’ confidence, Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu said Wisconsin needs to allow work on absentee ballots to begin before Election Day. Wisconsin is one of just a handful of states that ban election workers from starting to process these ballots until then.

"It takes quite a while on Election Day to load those ballots, which is why we have the 1 a.m. or 3 a.m. ballot dumping in Milwaukee," LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, said Jan. 10, 2021, on WKOW-TV’s Capitol City Sunday. "It just takes them that long to load in those absentee ballots. So we need to make sure there’s a process in place going forward so that reporting is timely."

LeMahieu added that there was not "widespread" voter fraud in the 2020 election.

The state senator is precisely right about why Milwaukee ballots were reported in the early morning hours of Nov. 4, as the Wisconsin tally neared its conclusion. (Biden won the state by about 20,000 votes, one of five he flipped from Trump).

Let’s review what we know.

Here we go again

The "ballot dump" claim has been one of the most widespread since the November election.

A conservative website trumpeted it as "Voter Fraud in Wisconsin." Widely shared Facebook posts claimed there was a "ballot dump" or "found" votes. Trump himself asserted that his lead in key states "started to magically disappear as surprise ballot dumps were counted" and that "Biden receives a dump of 143,379 votes at 3:42AM, when they learned he was losing badly."

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This line of thinking also appeared in numerous lawsuits and one nonsensical claim that statistics show the probability of Trump losing in Wisconsin, Georgia, Michigan and Pennsylvania "given President Trump’s early lead ... is less than one in a quadrillion" in each state.

Those claims led to unanimous debunking from an array of fact-checking organizations. All are built on a fundamental misunderstanding of the vote-counting process.

Wisconsin, Georgia, Michigan and Pennsylvania are among the states that don’t allow absentee votes to be counted before Election Day. So the unprecedented volume of absentee ballots spurred by the pandemic created a bottleneck in the largest cities.

That brings us to a simple logical chain that explains the late Democratic votes in Milwaukee (and Atlanta and Detroit and Philadelphia).

  • Milwaukee, like most large cities, is a longtime Democratic stronghold. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won the city of Milwaukee 77% to 18%.

  • We knew well before the election that Democrats were much more likely than Republicans to vote absentee. Polling showed 81% of the people planning to vote absentee in Wisconsin supported Biden.

  • We knew it was going to take a long time to count the absentee ballots, leading them to be reported later.

That counting time is why LeMahieu said he wants to change the law to allow workers to start on absentee ballots before Election Day.

"We need clear laws that are easy to follow, and we must instill confidence in the electorate that the results are accurate and free of fraud," LeMahieu said told PolitiFact Wisconsin. "With the proper safeguards in places to ensure transparency, allowing the ballot count to begin early should accomplish both of those goals." 

Our ruling

LeMahieu said the Milwaukee "ballot dumping" is due to the amount of time it took to count absentee ballots.

He’s right

We’ve seen an array of nonsensical claims that these ballots were illegitimately added based on the progress of the Wisconsin count. But those all overlook the simple truth that these ballots were reported later because it took longer to count them.

We rate LeMahieu’s claim True.


Our Sources

WKOW-TV, Capitol City Sunday, Jan. 10, 2021

PolitiFact Wisconsin, Trump again flat wrong with claims about Wisconsin voter fraud, Nov. 20, 2020

PolitiFact Wisconsin, Lawsuit claim that statistics prove fraud in Wisconsin, elsewhere is wildly illogical, Dec. 9, 2020

National Conference of State Legislatures, VOPP Table 16: When Absentee/Mail Ballot Processing and Counting Can Begin, Oct. 1, 2020

Marquette University Law School Poll, New Marquette Law School Poll finds Biden holding a steady lead over Trump in Wisconsin, Aug. 11, 2020

PolitiFact Wisconsin, Split in voting methods puts COVID, mail center stage in Wisconsin, Oct. 10, 2020

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Wisconsin likely won't have presidential results on election night, Sept. 17, 2020

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More by Eric Litke

Yes, slow absentee count explains supposed “ballot dump” in Milwaukee

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