Wisconsin Elections Commission Sued Over Unclear Absentee Ballot Guidance

WASHINGTON, D.C. On Tuesday, Sept. 27, Rise and a voter filed a lawsuit 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. This lawsuit was filed in the wake of a Sept. 7 decision from a Waukesha County Circuit Court judge that temporarily blocked 2016 guidance issued by WEC allowing election officials and clerks to fill in any missing address information on witness certificates without contacting voters or witnesses, so long as they could find reliable information to fill in. The judge ruled that the 2016 guidance violated Wisconsin law and effectively blocked clerks and election officials from correcting witness certificate address deficiencies during the upcoming November midterm elections. On Sept. 13, 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, WEC clarified that, despite the fact that it withdrew its guidance, the court’s injunction did not overturn WEC’s existing definition of address contained in its former guidance. Therefore, according to the plaintiffs in this newly filed lawsuit, there is currently “no operative WEC guidance on what constitutes an ‘address’” under Wisconsin law. 

In their complaint filed today, the plaintiffs argue that, because the Sept. 7 decision failed to specify what constitutes a complete and sufficient 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 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 Rights 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. 

Read the complaint here.

Learn more about the case here.