By Katabella Roberts
A Wisconsin judge on Wednesday dealt a blow to a group in the state who hoped to change rules governing absentee ballots, denying their request that local election clerks accept absentee ballots that contain partial addresses of witnesses.
Dane County Circuit Judge Juan Colas said in his ruling (pdf) that in the past 56 years that Wisconsin elections have been conducted, and absentee ballots counted, they have apparently been done so “without a legally binding definition of the witness address.”
The judge noted that the nearly 60 years of precedent was enough to determine whether an absentee ballot has enough of a witness address to count.
“Since then, until the present, clerks have been legally free to interpret the term. They presumably have done so in good faith, in keeping with their oaths of office, and drawing on the non-binding guidance issued by the WEC and its predecessors, and perhaps also on advice from their jurisdictions’ attorneys,” Colas wrote.
“In short, the legal status quo with respect to the definition of ‘address’ is the same as it has been for 56 years. Local clerks apply their understanding of the term ‘address’ to absentee ballot certifications, relying on non-binding advice from state elections authorities and, at least in some cases, advice from their municipal attorneys,” Colas continued.
“Evidence that there is variation in how clerks interpret the term (even evidence of increased variation), does not change the status quo, which is that the law has always left room for local clerks to interpret and apply the term to the ballot envelope before them.”
According to guidance from the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC), an address is defined as three components: a street number, street name, and municipality.
‘Varying Interpretations’ of Address Requirement Being Applied
In a motion (pdf) filed in court on Oct. 25, Rise Inc, a group that works to get young people to vote, said that new evidence had come to light which showed that “clerks across Wisconsin are applying varying interpretations of the absentee ballot witness address requirement,” denying the idea that WEC’s three-component definition is the ‘status quo.’”
The group has asked that an address requires only enough information to determine the location of the witness.
Colas on Wednesday said it was inappropriate to issue an order that changes the status quo.
The ruling comes within days of the Nov. 8 midterm elections. Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, and Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) are both up for reelection in the battleground state.
In a separate case this week, the 1st District Court of Appeals declined to hear an appeal of a ruling from Dane County Circuit Judge Nia Trammell in late October regarding the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin.
The League asked that the court declare that a missing address on a mail-in ballot means only that the address field is left entirely blank, and that election officials be allowed to count mail-in ballots with incomplete addresses on them.
Trammell rejected the request, arguing that it “would upend the status quo and not preserve it” and “frustrate the electoral process by causing confusion,” with just weeks to go until the elections.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.