A Wisconsin judge on Wednesday rejected an attempt backed by liberals to allow absentee ballots containing an incomplete witness address to be counted, saying that would disrupt the status quo and cause confusion with voting underway less than two weeks before Election Day.
The ruling was a win for the Republican-controlled Wisconsin Legislature, which intervened in the lawsuit.
The case focused on how much of the address of a witness needs to be included on an absentee ballot certificate in order for the ballot to be counted.
The Wisconsin Elections Commission has said that an address must include three elements: a street number, street name and municipality. The League of Women Voters of Wisconsin sued, seeking a ruling that an address can only be missing when the entire field is left blank.
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Dane County Circuit Judge Nia Trammell on Wednesday rejected the league’s request for a temporary injunction that would have allowed ballots with incomplete addresses to be counted. Trammell said she feared that loosening the witness address requirement would “would upend the status quo and not preserve it” and also “frustrate the electoral process by causing confusion.”
If she agreed with the league, the ruling would be quickly appealed and possibly overturned, which would result in ballots being tossed that were submitted by voters who thought their witness signatures were sufficient, Trammell said.
“This court does not want to add to the confusion that may arise from a temporary injunction that would all but certainly be appealed on an expedited basis,” she said.
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The Legislature has passed bills since 2020 making it more difficult to vote absentee, but they have all been vetoed by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers. Republican attempts to limit absentee voting came after President Joe Biden’s narrow win in the state in 2020, when a record number of people voted absentee due to the pandemic.
The decision comes as the state’s 1,800-plus local election clerks are receiving absentee ballots in the mail and allowing voters to cast those ballots in person. As of Wednesday, more than 305,000 ballots had been returned, according to the elections commission.
Very few ballots would likely be affected by the ruling. But it remains an issue because of Wisconsin’s narrow-thin election margins.
Evers, who faces Republican Tim Michels on Nov. 8, won in 2018 by just 29,227 votes. Biden defeated former President Donald Trump by just 20,682 votes. Trump won Wisconsin by 22,748 votes in 2016.
The Legislative Audit Bureau last year 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 their witness addresses. Only 15 ballots, or 0.1%, had no witness address.
The issue of what constitutes an acceptable address arose after another judge sided with Republicans and ruled that election clerks aren’t allowed to fill in missing information. Waukesha County Circuit Judge Michael Aprahamian did not rule on what constitutes an address, leading to the League of Women Voters lawsuit. The league is represented by Fair Elections Center and Law Forward, law firms that have represented liberal groups suing over voting rights in Wisconsin.
A similar lawsuit filed by the liberal group Rise Inc., which encourages students to vote, is pending. A judge last month refused to order that the election commissions must accept partial addresses.
In last year’s audit, clerks corrected addresses on just 66 ballot envelopes, or 0.4% of the sample.