WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Republican majority in the Wisconsin Legislature introduced a bill last Thursday that would add new requirements in order for absentee ballots to be counted. The bill clarifies that, for an absentee ballot to be counted, the accompanying witness certification must include the witness’s full name and address — including house number, street name, municipality, state and ZIP code.
The bill’s introduction comes in the midst of a heated court battle over Wisconsin’s absentee ballot witness address requirement which, for years, has been a source of confusion and frustration for voters. Under Wisconsin law, in order for absentee ballots to be counted, all voters have to fill out their ballots under the supervision of a witness, who then has to fill out and sign a witness certificate. The current law states that the witness certificate must include that the witness’s address — or else the ballot won’t be counted — but never specified what information counts as an address, leaving election clerks to interpret the rule differently.
In 2016, the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC) finally clarified its guidance, stating that an address must include the witness’s name, street number, street name and name of municipality. But the guidance also allowed election officials to fill in missing address information on witness certificates if they can find reliable information. In July 2022, the Republican Party of Waukesha County sued to overturn this guidance and a month before the midterms, a Wisconsin judge ruled in the GOP’s favor, striking down WEC’s guidance on absentee ballot witness addresses and once again leaving voters and clerks without a clear understanding on what information is needed for an absentee ballot to be counted.
Meanwhile, in September 2022, Rise, Inc. — a family and youth support nonprofit — and the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin each filed lawsuits to clarify the confusing guidance. Early last month, a judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, ordering WEC to tell local election clerks that all absentee ballots with witness certificates that contain enough information to “identify a location where the witness may be communicated with” must be counted. The judge also held that clerks cannot reject absentee ballots on the basis of witness certificate addresses that are missing certain components, such one’s ZIP code or municipality. The Wisconsin Legislature appealed the ruling last week.
But the Republican bill could render the judge’s decision moot while an appeal hangs in the balance until an appeals court or the Wisconsin Supreme Court decides to take up the case. Rep. Scott Krug (R), one of the co-authors of the bill, said that the legislation is a direct response to the ongoing legal battle over the witness address verification guidance. “This is where the definitions and guidance and ideas should come from, is the Legislature passing them and the governor signing them into law, so the courts don’t have to guess,” Krug said, according to Wisconsin Public Radio.