An absentee ballots for the April 7 election. (Photo by Henry Redman)
Following a ruling from a Waukesha County judge on Wednesday, voting rights advocates are concerned that voters will have their absentee ballots tossed out simply because the person acting as their witness left off a portion of their address.
“Under this ruling, the local clerk could no longer fill in the witness’s missing detail,” Matt Rothschild, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, wrote. “As a result, the voter’s most basic right, the freedom to vote in our democracy, would be abridged, and their ballot would be thrown away. All because their witness failed to put down the city where they lived. Or maybe even because their witness failed to put down the street they live on, or the zip code.”
On Wednesday, Waukesha County Circuit Judge Michael Aprahamian ruled that municipal clerks are unable to correct address errors on the envelopes of absentee ballots. Just a few months before the November midterm elections, the decision is a win for Republicans who have been pushing for further restrictions on voting.
Aprahamian’s decision came in a lawsuit brought by three voters and the Republican Party of Waukesha County.
Aprahamian’s ruling immediately rescinded the guidance the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC) issued in 2016. He gave the WEC five days to inform clerks that the guidance is no longer in effect. An appeal of the decision is likely.
Wisconsin state law requires absentee ballot envelopes to include the signatures and addresses of both the voter and a witness. The 2016 WEC guidance stated that a clerk could fill in missing information on the address line “if clerks are reasonably able to discern any missing information from outside sources.” Outside sources included if the clerk knows the voter personally or was able to verify an address on their own.
The 2016 guidance was approved unanimously by the commission, including by current WEC chair Don Millis, a Republican who was appointed to the body by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) earlier this year.
Commission guidance does not have the force of law, but it does provide the state’s 1,850 municipal clerks advice on how to administer the state’s elections.
Republicans have become increasingly hostile to methods that make voting absentee easier since the 2020 election and measures taken to ease voting during the COVID-19 pandemic. Earlier this year, a different Waukesha County judge ruled that absentee ballot drop boxes aren’t allowed by state law — a decision that the state Supreme Court later affirmed.
Last year, the Legislature’s Joint Committee for the Review of Administrative Rules (JCRAR) instructed the WEC to put the guidance through the state’s emergency rules process. The commission did so, but JCRAR struck down the rule earlier this summer.
The emergency rule process was halted but the 2016 guidance remained in effect and the six-member commission deadlocked on a vote to rescind it, meaning it remained in place until Aprahamian’s ruling.
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