WASHINGTON, D.C. — On Friday, Oct. 7, a Wisconsin judge denied a request to order the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC) to clarify the definition of a complete address on an absentee ballot witness certificate. However, in the order, the judge himself elucidated that “the definition of an absentee ballot witness ‘address’ contained in the October 18, 2016 Wisconsin Elections Commission memorandum and the September 14, 2022 memorandum to clerks from the Elections Commission, 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 unnecessary to preserve the status quo.”
The decision originates from a lawsuit filed by Rise — a student-led nonprofit focused on empowering and mobilizing college students and youth voters — and a voter seeking clarification on what qualifies as a complete absentee ballot witness certificate address. The lawsuit comes on the heels of a Sept. 7 decision from a Waukesha County Circuit Court judge that temporarily blocked 2016 WEC guidance that allowed 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. Following this decision, WEC withdrew its 2016 guidance allowing clerks to fill in missing witness address information, but stipulated that its former definition of any address — “[a] street number, street name, and name of municipality” — was not overturned by the court’s Sept. 7 decision. However, the plaintiffs in the suit contend that because WEC’s guidance — which contained its definition of an address — was rescinded, there is not currently an operative definition of an address upon which election officials can rely. In turn, the plaintiffs argue that 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” due to minor errors (such as a missing zip code or state name) in violation of the Materiality Provision of the Civil Rights Act.
In today’s decision, the judge held that WEC does not need to clarify the definition of an address, but made clear that WEC’s previous definition of an address is still in effect. Therefore, under this definition of a complete address, voters’ absentee ballots should be counted so long as they contain a witness address certificate that includes a street number, street name and name of municipality. Now that Wisconsin voters and election officials have clarity about what constitutes a sufficient address, Wisconsin voters can ensure that their absentee ballot witness certificates contain all of the necessary components to have their votes counted.