MADISON, Wis. –Wisconsin Republicans on Wednesday removed regulations allowing local election clerks to fill in missing information on mail-in ballot envelopes, the latest move by the GOP to tighten voting procedures in the crucial swing state.
The Wisconsin Elections Commission in October 2016 issued guidelines to local clerks telling them they could fill in missing witness information on absentee envelopes without contacting the witness or voter. The guidelines were 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 that Biden stole the election despite multiple reviews and court rulings that have found no evidence of fraud on a scale that would have affected the outcome. Republicans have called for tougher restrictions on voting across the country, often arguing that they are essential to maintaining public confidence in elections. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, at least 19 states enacted laws that made it harder to vote last year, including shortening the window to request an absentee ballot, toughening voter ID requirements and limiting early voting hours.
Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled legislature passed a sweeping package of bills earlier this year to require the rules committee to approve any directive from the commission, to make it harder for people to declare themselves indefinitely confined in order to get a mail-in ballot and ban private groups from donating money to local governments to administer elections.
Democratic Governor Tony Evers vetoed the entire package, but Republicans won a major victory earlier this month when the Supreme Court of the conservative-controlled state banned drop boxes. The GOP has argued that the boxes are insecure and invite fraud.
Now, GOP leaders have set their sights on the clerk’s guidelines, arguing that state law does not allow clerks to fill in the blanks on ballot envelopes and if the witness does not fill in the missing information, the ballot does not count. They demanded that the commission codify the guidelines into an emergency rule, which would allow the Legislature’s Republican-controlled rules committee to clear them.
The commission complied and wrote the rule. The committee met Wednesday afternoon to block it at the request of Republican legislative leaders, including Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu.
Democrats on the committee spent an hour slamming the move, calling it a “disgusting” attempt to curb voter turnout ahead of the Aug. 9 primary election and Nov. 8 general election, which include critical races for governor and president. US Senate.
“It’s a horrible mistake, but it continues down the path that Republicans have taken,” Rep. Gary Hebl said. “They don’t have the votes, so they have to reduce the number of people who can vote any way they can. It’s a sad time in our democracy where we have to stoop to those levels.”
GOP committee members countered that state law simply does not allow clerks to fill in missing information. They pointed out that clerks may attempt to return ballots with incomplete witness addresses. Hebl countered that overworked clerks will simply “throw” incomplete envelopes in the trash.
“I care about following state law,” said committee co-chairman Sen. Steve Nass. “No one mentioned a state law that allows (the Election Commission) to do what it does. (The commission) is trying to create a new law. That’s a core legislative function.”
The committee ultimately voted 6-4 to suspend the settlement. All four Democrats on the panel voted against the decision.
It is unclear how many clerks may have acted to correct witness information in the 2020 election.
Last year, the Legislative Audit Office reviewed nearly 15,000 mail-in ballot envelopes from the election in 29 municipalities and found that 1,022, or about 7%, were missing parts of witness addresses. Fifteen had no witness address, eight had no witness signature and three had no voter signature.
Auditors found evidence that clerks had corrected addresses on 66 envelopes, or 0.4% of the sample. The audit, however, cautioned against extrapolating statewide results, noting that auditors examined ballot envelopes from nine of the 10 municipalities with the highest proportion of mail-in ballots. .
If the rules committee invalidates the commission’s rule, the original guidelines that clerks can correct missing information would still stand, but perhaps not for long. The Waukesha County Republican Party filed a lawsuit earlier this month alleging the councils are illegal.
Dane County Clerk Scott McDonell said if clerks cannot add the missing information themselves, they will have to search for witnesses, which could be cumbersome for some offices with an already heavy workload. He said clerks could decide to return the ballot with a request to fill in the missing information if there is enough time to do so before Election Day. Otherwise, they may need to call or email the voter.
He said allowing clerks to add missing information themselves 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 impartial person would think that was reasonable,” he said.
This story has been updated to correct the spelling of ‘McDonell’ in the 17th graf.
Follow Todd Richmond on Twitter at https://twitter.com/trichmond1