Judge Instructs State Elections Commission to Update Rules
A Wisconsin judge has issued a ruling instructing the state elections commission to implement a decision allowing election clerks to accept absentee ballots with partial witness addresses. This ruling comes after Wisconsin’s recent presidential elections, which were extremely close, with margins under 23,000 votes, indicating another tight race.
Republicans Push to Tighten Absentee Ballot Rules
Republicans have been pushing to tighten absentee ballot rules since former President Trump’s defeat in Wisconsin in 2020. They have fought in court to limit the number of absentee ballots that can be accepted. State law requires absentee ballots to be submitted with a witness’ signature and address on the outside envelope.
Judge’s Order and Republican Resistance
Dane County Judge Ryan Nilsestuen earlier this month ruled that a ballot can still be accepted even if a witness address omits municipalities and ZIP codes or simply says “same” or “ditto” if the witness lives with the voter. Nilsestuen ordered the elections commission to approve guidance no later than Feb. 9 on what ballots can be accepted. The Republican-dominated Legislature’s attorney plans to appeal the ruling.
Wisconsin Supreme Court and Local Clerks’ Role
The case is expected to go to the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Meanwhile, the state elections commission will likely vote on Feb. 8 to approve guidance for Wisconsin’s more than 1,800 local clerks in line with the judge’s order. These local clerks are responsible for running elections and receiving absentee ballots that may not have complete witness address information.
Addressing Ballot Curing and Trump’s Lawsuit
In 2020, former President Trump tried to have more than 220,000 absentee ballots in Wisconsin tossed out. 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 rejected Trump’s lawsuit and noted that state law wasn’t clear on what constitutes an address for witnesses.
Judge’s Four Acceptable Address Formats
The judge on Tuesday spelled out four ways a witness address could be accepted with some missing information. These include including the street number, street name, and municipality, but neither a state name nor a ZIP code. It would also be acceptable if the witness includes the same street number and street name as the voter but no other address information is provided. Additionally, if the witness indicates their address is the same as the voter’s by using phrases like “same,” “same address,” “same as voter,” “same as above,” “see above,” “ditto,” or by using quotation marks or an arrow or line pointing to the other address.
Review of Absentee Ballot Envelopes
In 2021, the Legislative Audit Bureau reviewed nearly 15,000 absentee ballot envelopes from the 2020 election and found that 7% were missing parts of witness addresses. Only 0.1% had no witness address. Clerks had corrected addresses on 0.4% of the sample.
This ruling and the upcoming decision by the state elections commission will have significant implications for Wisconsin’s upcoming local elections, as well as the presidential primary and spring general election in April. The fight over absentee ballot rules continues in Wisconsin, as both parties seek to ensure the integrity and accessibility of the voting process.