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Wisconsin Supreme Court temporarily suspends mailing of absentee ballots
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Wisconsin Supreme Court temporarily suspends mailing of absentee ballots

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Supreme Court

The Wisconsin Supreme Court chambers. 

The Wisconsin Supreme Court on Thursday temporarily suspended the mailing of absentee ballots for the Nov. 3 election as the court weighs whether to order the Green Party presidential ticket be added to the ballot.

The order from the conservative-backed majority on the state Supreme Court, coming a week before the state-imposed Sept. 17 deadline to send out requested absentee ballots to registered voters, is in a case brought by Green Party presidential candidate Howie Hawkins.

Some clerks, including those in Dane County, have already printed or sent out ballots as they handle an unprecedented number of requests this year due to COVID-19.

Hawkins wants the court to place him on the ballot after his request was rejected by the Wisconsin Elections Commission. He and running mate Angela Walker were kept off the ballot due to a complaint alleging Walker listed an incorrect address on thousands of her nominating signatures, bringing her number of valid signatures below the required threshold to secure a spot on the ballot.

Rapper Kanye West is also attempting to be placed on the presidential ballot in a separate lawsuit after being denied ballot access because he turned in his nominating signatures moments too late.

The court, in a 4-3 decision with all liberal-backed justices dissenting, said clerks should hold off on sending out any absentee ballots until it issues a further order in the case.

The court also asked the Wisconsin Elections Commission to provide it information within a matter of hours Thursday detailing whether any ballots have been mailed out to voters and if so, to whom and when. In response, Elections Commission administrator Meagan Wolfe said despite its best efforts, it was only able to gather information from 63 of 72 counties and 25 of 1,850 municipalities. Many municipal clerks work part-time.

The Elections Commission filing showed at least 2.3 million ballots have already been printed by local elections officials across the state. Municipal clerks have so far reported that as many as 378,482 ballots may have already been sent. The number is likely higher given the number of clerks who didn’t respond.

Some county clerks who responded complained to the commission about the tardiness of the Hawkins lawsuit and the potential costs and time involved in making last-minute changes to ballots, which would require the printing of new ballots and other complications.

Bayfield County Clerk Scott Fibert questioned whether parties asking for ballot changes should be the ones to pay for reprinting.

“I find it unfair that county clerks were/are put in this position of trying to make decisions when the courts are not acting expeditiously,” wrote Chippewa County Clerk Jaclyn Sadler. “This should not be happening the week before ballots are to be mailed out.”

While the Elections Commission is provided with updates, Wisconsin’s decentralized elections system means detailed information about ballot requests and mailings resides with municipal clerks.

Ballots printed in Dane County

As of Thursday, the Elections Commission logged nearly 1 million absentee ballot requests on file. The court order has already caused a stir among local elections officials.

Dane County Clerk Scott McDonell said a potential Supreme Court order adding names to the November ballot would create virtually insurmountable challenges. McDonell said municipal clerks in Dane County have 150,000 absentee requests on file as of Thursday and are working on delivering them to municipal clerks.

McDonell said if the Supreme Court were to change the ballot at this point, Dane County would have to redesign the ballot, including in Spanish, load new information onto voting machine thumb drives, test the ballots, print 500,000 new ballots, package, sort and deliver them.

Municipal clerks would then need to print labels, sort the requests by ballot type, stuff the envelopes and mail them.

If the Supreme Court orders new names to be placed on the ballot, he said there is no way local clerks would be able to mail out absentee ballots by the Sept. 17 deadline or the Sept. 19 federal deadline for military and overseas voters.

“This is potentially a huge disaster,” McDonell said. “Just the delay of a decision is deeply irresponsible and jeopardizes the integrity of our election.”

Elections Commission spokesman Reid Magney said about 313,000 absentee ballot labels have already been created, representing about a third of the total requests on file.

Wolfe said many jurisdictions were planning to send out ballots this weekend, and that some smaller, hand-count jurisdictions may already have sent out ballots.

“Once ballots go out, to change the ballot would be incredibly, incredibly challenging to manage that process,” she said.

If the ballot were to be changed, elections officials would likely need to develop an A/B balloting system for voters who have already received a ballot, something that hasn’t been done before on a statewide basis. Such a system would mean voters who already received the original style ballot would receive a new “B” ballot they would be instructed to return. Clerks would be provided information on which ballot to count.

The state’s voter registration system ensures only one ballot from each voter is counted.

Candidates kept off ballot

The Elections Commission opted to keep West off the ballot because he turned his signatures in after the deadline, and the commission deadlocked twice on whether to include Hawkins on the ballot, meaning he’ll be kept off unless the decision is overturned by a court.

In mid-August, a Democratic attorney from Madison filed a complaint with the Wisconsin Elections Commission on behalf of a Madison voter asking for Hawkins and Walker to be kept off the ballot because they list Walker’s incorrect home address on thousands of nominating signatures.

Candidates are required to list their current address on nominating petitions. Elections Commission guidance states that if any information is incorrect, their signatures must be rejected. Wisconsin requires presidential candidates to get at least 2,000 valid signatures from Wisconsin electors. Hawkins and Walker submitted 3,737, but the complaint alleged 2,046 of them appeared on petitions that didn’t list Walker’s current address, bringing them below the necessary signature threshold.

West filed a currently pending lawsuit in Brown County Circuit Court challenging the Elections Commission decision to keep him off the ballot. West is running as a member of the Birthday Party with vice presidential candidate Michelle Tidball.

Three Democrats and two Republicans on the Elections Commission decided West’s campaign filed its nomination papers too late. Employee testimony and video from a reporter suggested a campaign representative showed up at the elections building just after the 5 p.m. deadline on Aug. 4. The campaign said it had until 59 seconds after 5 p.m. to file. A Brown County judge said he expected to rule within days on the matter.

Placing new names on the November ballot might not only create delays in sending out this year’s unprecedented volume of requested ballots. It could also influence the outcome of the presidential election in November because vote margins in Wisconsin tend to be very close.

In 2016, for example, Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein won 31,006 votes, more than President Donald Trump’s less than 23,000 margin of victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton in Wisconsin.

There is some evidence Republican operatives in Wisconsin and nationally may be assisting West in getting on the ballot. In Wisconsin, attorney Lane Ruhland, who has worked for a number of influential Wisconsin Republicans, including the Trump campaign, was seen dropping off signatures for West.

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