Wisconsin elections officials expected to move quickly on absentee ballot rules

  • Canadian Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Wisconsin Elections Commission will likely vote next week on how to implement a judge’s ruling allowing election clerks to accept absentee ballots that have partial witness addresses, a decision that is expected to expand the number of ballots that will be counted in battleground Wisconsin.

Each of the last two presidential elections in Wisconsin was decided by fewer than 23,000 votes. Polls show another razor−tight race this year between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump.

Ever since Trump’s defeat in Wisconsin in 2020, Republicans have been fighting in court to tighten the rules to limit how many absentee ballots can be accepted.

State law requires absentee ballots to be submitted with a witness’ signature and address on the outside envelope that contains the ballot. Three separate lawsuits were filed related to those rules.

Dane County Judge Ryan Nilsestuen earlier this month ruled, in two cases brought by liberals, that a ballot can still be accepted even if a witness address omits municipalities and ZIP codes, or simply say “same” or “ditto” if the witness lives with the voter. The Republican Legislature fought to have the case dismissed.

At a hearing Tuesday, Nilsestuen stressed that he wanted to move quickly on issuing an order spelling out in detail how that ruling is to be implemented given the upcoming Feb. 20 primary for local elections. Wisconsin’s presidential primary and spring general election is April 2.

The Republican−dominated Legislature’s attorney, Kevin LeRoy, said he planned to ask for the ruling to be put on hold pending an appeal. The judge scheduled a Friday hearing on that.

The case is expected to go to the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

But first, the state elections commission could vote on approving guidance for Wisconsin’s more than 1,800 local clerks in line with the judge’s order. The local clerks are the ones who run elections and receive the absentee ballots that don’t always have all of the witness address information.

The commission, also known as WEC, has a meeting scheduled for Monday and will likely vote on guidance for the clerks then, said its attorney, Assistant Attorney General Thomas Bellavia.

“We’ll try to turn it around as fast possible," Bellavia said. "WEC wants this system to work.”

The elections commission published guidance in 2016 saying that a witness address “contain at a minimum, a street number, street name and municipality," but that clerks could fill in missing address information, known as ballot curing. The practice was unchallenged until after Trump’s narrow loss in 2020 when he tried to have more than 220,000 absentee ballots tossed out in an unsuccessful attempt to overturn his defeat.

Among those he wanted to not count were about 5,500 absentee ballots where clerks filled in missing information on the witness’ address.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling in December 2020 rejecting Trump’s lawsuit noted that state law wasn’t clear on what constitutes an address for witnesses.

A Waukesha County judge sided with Republicans in 2022 and ruled that election clerks can’t fill in missing address information on absentee ballot envelopes. The elections commission withdrew its guidance following that ruling.

However, the judge did not say in that order what constitutes an address.

That led to the filing of a pair of related lawsuits in Dane County, which argued that because there was no longer any state guidance, and the Waukesha County ruling didn’t say what counts as a complete address, clerks didn’t know what to do.

The elections commission proposed that the definition of address means it must include a street number, street name and the name of the municipality.

But Nilsestuen earlier this month rejected that definition in his ruling saying that ballots could be accepted with partial addresses.

The lawsuits were filed by Rise Inc., a liberal group that mobilizes young voters, and the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin. They argued that the judge should require the Wisconsin Elections Commission to tell local election officials that they must accept ballots as long as the witness address “includes sufficient information from which the clerk can reasonably discern the place where the witness may be communicated with.”

The Legislative Audit Bureau in 2021 reviewed nearly 15,000 absentee ballot envelopes from the 2020 election across 29 municipalities and found that 1,022, or about 7%, were missing parts of witness addresses. Only 15 ballots, or 0.1%, had no witness address. Auditors found that clerks had corrected addresses on 66 envelopes, or 0.4% of the sample.

Scott Bauer, The Associated Press

Photo: AP