Lawsuit filed by Rise, Inc. and a voter against the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC) and the Madison City clerk seeking clarification about what qualifies as a complete absentee ballot witness certificate address. Under Wisconsin law, a voter’s absentee ballot must be accompanied by a witness certificate containing a witness address in order to prove that a voter completed their absentee ballot in the presence of a witness who can attest to the voter’s eligibility to vote absentee. In 2016, the WEC issued guidance allowing election officials to fill in any missing address information on witness certificates if they can find reliable information. On Sept. 7, a Waukesha County Circuit Court judge concluded that this guidance violated Wisconsin law and temporarily blocked its use in the upcoming November midterm elections, meaning clerks cannot fill in missing information on witness certificates this fall. On Sept. 13, the WEC withdrew its guidance that allowed election officials to fill in missing address information on absentee ballot witness certificates and contained its previously existing definition of an address: “[a] street number, street name, and name of municipality.” However, the WEC clarified that, despite the fact that it withdrew its guidance, the court’s injunction did not overturn the WEC’s existing definition of address contained in its former guidance. Therefore, according to the plaintiffs, there is currently “no operative WEC guidance on what constitutes an ‘address’” under Wisconsin law.
The plaintiffs in this lawsuit argue that, because the Sept. 7 decision failed to specify what constitutes an adequate and complete address and because the WEC withdrew its former guidance that defined the components of an address, election officials now face confusion as to how to deal with incomplete witness addresses, thereby putting voters at risk of having their “ballots thrown out.” The plaintiffs claim that potential ballot rejection due to an incomplete witness address that is lacking information such as a zip code or state postal abbreviation “risks violating” Wisconsin law and the Civil Right Act’s materiality provision since this missing information is irrelevant to an individual’s eligibility to vote. The plaintiffs therefore request that the court declare that “an ‘address’ on a witness certificate requires only the information necessary to reasonably discern the location where the witness may be communicated with” and that “an [otherwise valid] absentee ballot containing sufficient address information to identify and communicate with the witness is not ‘improperly completed’” under Wisconsin law. On Oct. 6, the court granted the Wisconsin Legislature’s motion to intervene in the case.
On Oct. 7, the court denied the plaintiffs’ motion for a temporary injunction and held that WEC’s previous definition of an address — “namely that an address is sufficient if it contains a street number, street name and name of municipality” — is the “status quo and that the requested temporary injunction is not necessary to preserve the status quo.” This means that Wisconsin voters and election officials have clarity about what constitutes a sufficient address and can ensure that their absentee ballot witness certificates contain all of the necessary components to have their votes counted.
On Nov. 2, the court denied the plaintiffs’ second motion for a temporary injunction.