Milwaukee election officials reschedule meeting after getting 'Zoom bombed'

MILWAUKEE — A city election commission meeting set to discuss absentee ballots from this month's election was rescheduled after a video conference call Sunday afternoon was interrupted by unknown participants flooding the meeting with racist and pornographic images.

The Milwaukee Election Commission had scheduled a special meeting for 2 p.m. on Sunday, April 12, to discuss the guidelines from the state’s election commission regarding counting of late-arriving absentee ballots. After the call was interrupted, election officials announced early Sunday evening the meeting would be rescheduled for 11 a.m., April 13, the following day.

As of Saturday, the Milwaukee Election Commission said it had received nearly 11,000 absentee ballots. Election Commission Executive Director Neil Albrecht said 9,947 ballots were postmarked on or before April 7; 517 ballots were postmarked after Election Day, and 354 had no postmarks at all.

Of the ballots with no postmark, Albrecht said most came in on April 8 or April 9, meaning it’s likely the ballots were mailed on or prior to April 7. However, he said 105 ballots were delivered to the election commission on April 10 or 11 — which makes it harder to determine when they were mailed.

On Friday, the Wisconsin Elections Commission told local clerks to follow a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that absentee ballots postmarked no later than Election Day will count as they prepare to tally results from the state's spring general election and presidential primary.

The day before the election, the nation’s highest court — in a 5-4 ruling with the more conservative justices in the majority — ruled absentee ballots had to be hand-delivered to clerks on Tuesday or postmarked no later than Tuesday to count. The court left in place a lower judge's ruling that clerks will have until April 13 to receive ballots and counting can't begin until 4 p.m.

Ballot returns have been a mess, with clerks receiving hundreds of ballots with no postmarks or ballots with undated markings and smudges, raising questions about whether they qualify as postmarks.

The Milwaukee Election Commission had scheduled a video conference with elections commissioners Sunday to discuss the absentee ballot issues through the teleconferencing application, Zoom. The video communication company's software has become a favored method of communication during the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, from the beginning it appeared the public meeting would get off to an inauspicious start. Before the meeting officially started, a number of users signed in on the conference call had listed names that were a double entendre, in nature.

About 10 minutes into the call, the screen showing Albrecht discussing the absentee ballots was taken over by an unknown participant. Various videos, pornography and vulgarities continued, uninterrupted, for about seven minutes until the commissioners — at the direction of the city’s legal counsel — adjourned the meeting.

The meeting number and password was posted publicly on the election commission's website prior to the meeting, which is where the issues likely started before the meeting even began.

With millions of people now working from home, and government officials forced to cancel in-person meetings of public bodies, the video conferencing software Zoom has proven to be an essential tool for keeping businesses connected, and governments able to speak with constituents, and the press.

However, the harassment, known as ‘Zoom bombing,’ has reared an ugly side of the work from home requirements millions of people are now dealing with.

A Connecticut teenager was charged with computer crimes last week after allegedly interrupting online classes of a public school district in the state. The unidentified teen was arrested on April 8.

In late March, Zoom published a post on its blog detailing how to keep uninvited guests out of zoom events. Earlier in April, Zoom founder and CEO Eric Yuan responded to the difficulties posed by the increased use of his company’s application.

"We now have a much broader set of users who are utilizing our product in a myriad of unexpected ways, presenting us with challenges we did not anticipate when the platform was conceived,” Yuan said in the blog post.

Law enforcement agencies are working to adapt and respond to reports of uninvited participants harassing video conferences.

Sunday evening, Milwaukee City Clerk Jim Owczarski said the election commissioners meeting was rescheduled for Monday morning. Zoom is not being used.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.