Wisconsin Supreme Court delays mailing of absentee ballots

An absentee ballots for the April 7 election. (Photo by Henry Redman)
An absentee ballots for the April 7 election. (Photo by Henry Redman)

The Wisconsin Supreme Court issued an order on Thursday afternoon halting the mailing of absentee ballots to Wisconsin voters until the Court decides whether Green Party presidential candidate Howie Hawkins should be added to the ballot.

The order was issued by Chief Justice Patience Roggensack and justices Rebecca Bradley, Brian Hagedorn and Annette Ziegler — all conservatives —  with liberal justices Ann Walsh Bradley, Rebecca Dallet and Jill Karofsky joining a dissent.

Hawkins and his running mate Angela Walker have filed a petition with the Court seeking to be added to the ballot as candidates for president and vice president in the November 2020 general election. The Wisconsin Elections Commission deadlocked on their request, with the result that they were not allowed to appear on the ballot.

Before the Court can decide whether to grant the Green Party candidates’ petition, the order states, the Wisconsin Elections Commission must obtain information from all the elections clerks in the state regarding who has requested an absentee ballot, whether any absentee ballots have been mailed and the names and addresses of the recipients. 

“We also will order that the Wisconsin Elections Commission obtain from the county clerks in this state information regarding when and who requested the ballots to be printed, including a specific date and time,” the justices state in their order.

All of this information was ordered to be provided by 5 pm on Thursday Sept. 10.

In a short dissent joined by justices Dallet and Karofsky, Justice Walsh Bradley writes, “Given the breadth of the information requested and the minimal time allotted to obtain it, I fear that the majority of this court is asking the impossible of our approximately 1,850 municipal clerks throughout the state.” 

As expected, the Elections Commission did not gather all of the required information in time: “’Around 63 out of 72 counties responded, and around 25 out of 1,850 municipalities responded,’” according to an affidavit from the commission’s director, Meagan Wolfe,” Patrick Marley of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel tweeted just after 5 pm. Wolfe, he added, stated, “This low response rate from municipalities is unsurprising, since most municipal clerks serve in a part-time capacity, and most of those part-time clerks may not have been working this afternoon or monitoring their official email accounts.”

Meanwhile, no further absentee ballots can be mailed under the court order.

Elections officials have been preparing absentee ballots to be mailed to Wisconsin voters by Sept. 17. At the beginning of the week they had already received nearly 1 million requests.

In affidavits taken by the Wisconsin Department of Justice, Wisconsin Elections Commission administrator Meagan Wolfe and Dane County Clerk Scott McDonell state that elections officials will be unable to meet the federal deadline for mailing overseas ballots if they are required to reprint ballots with the Green Party candidates’ names.

Background

Both Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins and Birthday Party candidate and entertainer Kanye West are pursuing separate lawsuits seeking to be added to the Wisconsin ballot in the 2020 presidential election, after being denied ballot status by the Wisconsin Elections Commission.

The commissioners split 3-to-3 along partisan lines, with Republicans supporting adding Hawkins to the ballot and Democrats opposed.

“Maybe this is an issue that needs to go to court,” Commissioner Robert Spindell, a Milwaukee Republican, said during the meeting, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported. 

The commission also voted 5-to-1 to keep Kanye West off the ballot after his campaign barely missed a 5 pm deadline to turn in signatures supporting his candidacy. Spindell was the lone dissenter, arguing that West should be allowed on the ballot. 

Both Hawkins and West are viewed by Democrats as spoiler candidates whose candidacies would ultimately benefit Republican President Donald Trump.

West has stated publicly that the purpose of his campaign is to help the Republicans by taking votes away from Joe Biden.

Hawkins is a longtime peace and social justice activist who helped found the U.S. Green Party in 1984. 

The Elections Commission kept Hawkins and Angela Walker off the ballot citing multiple home addresses listed for Walker, who moved to South Carolina during the campaign.

Yesterday, the Wisconsin Department of Justice filed affidavits by Meagan Wolfe, administrator of the Wisconsin Elections Commission, Dane County Clerk Scott McDonell and Outagamie County Clerk Lori O’Bright stating that the Green Party’s request to be added to the ballot could not be met without sowing chaos in the election. “It would be catastrophic to this election if ballots were to change after being sent to some or all electors,” Wolfe said.

Hawkins responded by filing a letter from Jefferson County Clerk Audrey McGraw asserting that reprinting ballots to add Hawkins’ name could be accomplished easily by her office as well as every other municipal clerk’s office in the state.

The Department of Justice in a brief, contradicted that assertion, laying out the significant barriers to producing new ballots without delay for Wisconsin’s 1,850 municipal clerks. Plus, the DOJ brief points out, it was the Green Party’s own delay in seeking relief from the Court that put Wisconsin elections officials in an impossible position.

“Inexplicably, Petitioners waited two entire weeks after the Commission’s August 20 decision to file this petition for an original action and “emergency” request for temporary injunctive relief. Petitioners’ own delay created the purported “emergency” they now face. At this late hour, they ask this Court to order the reprinting of every single ballot statewide and thus the mailing of a second round of ballots to voters who have already received one,” the DOJ brief states (emphasis in the original).

It is unusual for a court to order a party in a lawsuit to generate evidence to support the other side’s argument, but that is what the Wisconsin Supreme Court has done in this case.

Because a delay in the mailing of absentee ballots could cause the state to miss the federal deadline of Sept. 19 for sending absentee ballots to Americans living overseas including members of the  U.S. military, set by the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, the case could end up in federal court.