Wisconsin Court Issues Major Mail-in Voting Victory Ahead of 2024 Election

WASHINGTON, D.C. Yesterday, a Wisconsin trial court issued a major win to voting rights groups and voters ahead of the 2024 elections that could prevent thousands of ballots from being unfairly rejected due to witness certificates with an incomplete address.

Wisconsin’s witness address requirement has been a source of confusion and disenfranchisement for years.

Under Wisconsin law, when voting absentee, voters must fill out their absentee ballot alongside a witness. The witness must complete and sign a witness certificate that includes the witness’s address. If a witness address is missing, the ballot will not be counted. 

In 2016, the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC) issued guidance allowing election officials to fill in any missing address information on witness certificates if they can find reliable information. The guidance stated that an address had to contain the street number, street name, and name of municipality. However, in 2022, Republicans challenged this guidance and ultimately a court struck down the guidance instructing clerks to fill in missing information on absentee ballot certificate envelopes. WEC then formally withdrew its guidance that allowed clerks to fill in missing information, but also left clerks and voters without a concrete understanding of which ballots would be rejected. 

Two lawsuits challenged WEC’s lack of guidance. 

Since WEC’s lack of guidance caused clerks to interpret the guidance differently, voters through no fault of their own were without an operating definition of address. In September 2022, two lawsuits — one filed on behalf of Rise, Inc. and a voter and one filed on behalf of the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin — challenged the convoluted guidance. Specifically, the plaintiffs argued that there is no longer a definition of what constitutes an adequate address under Wisconsin election law. 

The plaintiffs argued that, because the 2022 decision failed to specify what constitutes an adequate and complete address and because 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 not counted 

The plaintiffs claimed that potential ballot rejection due to an incomplete witness address that is lacking information such as a zip code or state postal abbreviation risked 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 asked the court to adopt the definition of an address as “a place where a person or organization may be communicated with.”

In a victory for voters, the trial court sided with pro-voting groups, preventing certain ballots from rejection. 

In two orders yesterday, a Wisconsin judge finally clarified which ballots should be counted and held that the plaintiffs’ definition of address — any place where a person may be reached — is what should be used. Under this definition of address, a voter’s otherwise valid absentee ballot with a witness certificate is sufficient if the clerk is able to discern where a witness may be reached. The judge concluded that the “Witness Address Requirement is not material to whether a voter is qualified.” 

This is a major victory since small, immaterial deficiencies in the witness address are now no longer a reason to disqualify a voter’s ballot. A 2021 report found that almost 7% of audited ballots “had partial witness addresses because they did not have one or more components of a witness address, such as a street name, municipality, state, and zip code.” The court also highlighted several examples of ballots rejected due to the witness address requirement: 

  • “Appleton, Green Bay, and Racine each rejected absentee ballots because the witness address did not contain a ZIP code or municipality;  
  • Appleton, Eau Claire, Oshkosh, Racine, and Waukesha each rejected absentee ballots because the witness, who lived at the same house as the voter, included the same street number and street name as the voter, but omitted other address information, such as a ZIP code or municipality;  
  • Oshkosh rejected a ballot because the witness wrote ‘same as voter’s address’; and
  • Racine rejected numerous ballots because the witnesses included their street number, street name, and ZIP code, but not a municipality.” 

The court concluded that this practice violates the Materiality Provision and found that clerks cannot reject ballots with the above deficiencies. 

Yesterday’s decisions will likely reduce these instances of ballot rejections and rightfully ensure that voters are not disenfranchised for errors they themselves did not even make. 

Read the Rise, Inc. opinion here.

Learn more about the Rise, Inc. case here.

Read the League of Women Voters order here.

Learn more about the League of Women Voters case here.