Nearly 1,400 absentee ballots were re-sent to voters in Vilas County’s primary election last week due to a printing error.

The original ballots incorrectly listed incumbent Vilas County Sheriff Joe Fath as the first option, although after winning a drawing, challenger Gerard Ritter should have been listed first.

The incorrect ballots are referred to as “A Ballot,” while the second round of corrected ones are referred to as “B Ballot.”

According to Vilas County Clerk Kim Olkowski, this was an error on the part of the printer.

“The correct ballot position was sent by me to the designer, and acknowledged by the designer,” Olkowski said. “It was reversed by the designer by mistake, and I did not catch it when proofing.”

She said approximately 1,350 of the incorrect ballots in Vilas County were mailed out between June 23 and July 18.

“I found the error late on Wednesday, July 13, and on Thursday, July 14, I spoke to Gerard Ritter first, and then to Joseph Fath to make them aware,” Olkowski explained. “Then I talked to the state for guidance and the procedure on how to go forward.”

The state had to contact legal counsel and got back to Olkowski on Monday, July 18. The decision was then made to issue corrected B Ballots.

“The ballots were immediately ordered and sent to the town clerks to reissue. Replacement ballots were sent out on Monday, July 25, or Tuesday, July 26, as soon as the clerks received them from the printer,” Olkowski said.

Replacement ballots contained detailed instructions on how voters should handle the situation, explaining that B Ballots should be filled out and returned. Once B Ballots are received, A Ballots will be removed and not counted. Instructions further stated that for voters who do not return their B Ballot but had previously mailed in the A Ballot, clerks will remake B Ballots.

Both Olkowski and town clerks assure the public that two ballots will not be counted during the final tally of votes. Olkowski explained how the process will be carried out once B Ballots are received in order to avoid any duplication.

“The instructions for absentee ballots indicate a witness is needed and multiple places for signatures by the voter. The town clerks, chief election inspectors, and poll workers will be remaking those B Ballots to mirror the returned A Ballots,” she said. “There will be two people working together in dual control to make those changes accurately.

“We want to assure the voters that they will not have two ballots counted. The voting machines will reject the A Ballot, as they are programmed to only accept the B Ballot,” Olkowski added.

In the case that a person returns a B Ballot that is filled out incorrectly or contains different choices than their A Ballot, Olkowski said poll workers will then contact the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC) for its guidance. She added that, to be sure Vilas County is following the correct procedures, WEC has advised on all aspects of the process that need to take place.

“This was a printing error — an honest mistake,” Olkowski said. “The county did the right thing. We are assuring the voters that they will not have two ballots counted. We worked with the candidates involved, with the Wisconsin Elections Commission, with the Vilas County Board chair, with the town clerks, with our designer, and with our printer.”

Olkowski apologized for the confusion, and expressed her intentions to keep everything transparent to assure voters the election will be sound.

“This was a mistake, an oversight, and for that I’m very sorry. Our town and city clerks have handled this so well. They have all remained positive, and were very quick to respond and get the job done. I appreciate their extra efforts on making the voters aware of what happened, and that they are there to help the voters of their municipality,” she said.

Previously, incumbents were always placed first on the ballot with (incumbent) listed after their name, but that changed more than a decade ago. Candidates now draw for who gets the first ballot position, which can provide an advantage for whomever is listed first, according to Olkowski.

“I firmly believe it was an honest mistake,” candidate Gerard Ritter said. “Vilas County Clerk Kim Olkowski did her due diligence to make sure it was done right and corrected. I believe in her abilities and think she is a great addition to the Vilas County courthouse family.”

Olkowski added she has been responsible for all elections in Vilas County for 10 years and there have been no mistakes on ballots prior to this election.

For more information on ballot mistakes or if anyone has questions, they should contact Kim Olkowski at (715) 479-3602 or kiolko@vilascountywi.gov, or contact their town clerk.