Wisconsin GOP may block clerks from fixing ballot addresses

Todd Richmond
Associated Press

Madison, Wis. – Wisconsin Republicans were set Wednesday to erase regulations allowing local election clerks to fill in missing information on absentee ballot envelopes, the latest move in the GOP’s push to tighten voting procedures in the crucial swing state.

The Wisconsin Elections Commission in October 2016 issued guidance to local clerks saying they could fill in missing witness information on absentee envelopes without contacting the witness or the voter. The guidance was in effect during the 2020 presidential election, which saw Joe Biden narrowly defeat then-President Donald Trump in Wisconsin.

Trump has spread the false claim since then that Biden stole the election, in the face of multiple reviews and court decisions that found no evidence of fraud on a scale that would have affected the outcome.

Republican lawmakers passed a sweeping package of bills earlier this year to require the rules committee to sign off on any commission guidance, to make it harder for people to declare themselves indefinitely confined in order to get an absentee ballot and to ban private groups from giving local governments money to help administer elections.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers vetoed the entire package, but Republicans won a major victory earlier this month when the conservative-controlled state Supreme Court outlawed drop boxes. The GOP has argued that the boxes aren’t secure and invite fraud.

Now GOP leaders have set their sights on the clerk guidance, arguing that state law doesn’t allow clerks to take such action, and if the witness doesn’t fill in the missing information the ballot doesn’t count. They demanded that the commission codify the guidance in the form of an emergency rule, which would allow the Legislature’s Republican-controlled rules committee to erase it.

The commission complied and drafted the rule and the committee was set to meet Wednesday afternoon to block it at the request of Republican legislative leaders, including Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu.

Ahead of Wednesday’s vote, Democratic lawmakers said such a move would amount to suppressing the right to vote ahead of the Aug. 9 primary and Nov. 8 general election, which includes critical races for governor and U.S. Senate.

“It’s unfair and dangerous to change the rules in the middle of an election,” Sen. Kelda Roys said. “Republican legislators are putting an undue burden on our local election workers (to contact witnesses), and potentially nullifying thousands of legally cast votes – all to further the Big Lie and set the stage to overturn election results they do not like.”

It’s not clear how many clerks may have acted to fix witness information during the 2020 election.

The Legislative Audit Bureau last year reviewed nearly 15,000 absentee ballot envelopes from the election across 29 municipalities and found that 1,022, or about 7%, were missing parts of witness addresses. Fifteen didn’t have any witness address at all, eight lacked a witness signature and three didn’t have a voter signature.

Auditors found evidence that clerks had corrected addresses on 66 envelopes, or 0.4% of the sample. The audit cautioned against extrapolating the findings statewide, however, noting auditors reviewed ballot envelopes from nine of the 10 municipalities with the highest proportion of absentee ballots.

If the rules committee invalidates the commission’s rule, the initial guidance saying clerks can correct missing information would still stand, but maybe not for long. The Waukesha County Republican Party filed a lawsuit earlier this month alleging the guidance is illegal.

Dane County Clerk Scott McDonnell said if clerks are blocked from adding missing information on their own, they will have to track witnesses down that could be cumbersome for some offices with already heavy workloads. He said clerks may decide to mail the ballot back with a request to fill in the missing information if there’s enough time to do so before Election Day. Otherwise they may have to call or email the voter.

He said allowing clerks to add missing information on their own is a “common-sense system.” Often the witness is the voter’s spouse and clerks can confirm an address through the state voter database.

“Any fair-minded person would think this was reasonable,” he said.