Madison, Wisconsin — On Thursday, a conservative-controlled Wisconsin Supreme Court ordered absentee ballots to be suspended until a ruling over who should vote in critical battlefield conditions.
The order confuses voting in Wisconsin a week before the state’s deadline to send out absentee ballots to those who applied for it and two months before the November 3 presidential election. Polls indicate fierce competition between President Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden.
Local elections officials sounded a warning about what even a temporary delay in the process meant.
“This is a potentially big disaster,” said Scott McDonell, Dane County Clerk. “Just delaying decisions is irresponsible and jeopardizes the integrity of our elections.”
There were 100,000 absentee ballot requests in Madison alone, and election officials will mail them all weekend, he said. If the court orders a ballot change, Dane County is required to print, pack, sort, and deliver 500,000 new ballots.
The ruling came in the case of Green Party presidential candidate Howie Hawkins, who challenged the Wisconsin Election Commission’s decision in the state’s highest court and asked him to be removed from the ballot. The committee fell into a deadlock in August to see if Hawkins submitted the proper paperwork.
Rapper Kanye West is trying to vote even in a separate case after the committee voted 5-1 that his nomination papers were too late. West claims that his paperwork received after 5pm on the deadline meets the requirements for putting him on the ballot. Brown County judges hoped to rule West’s lawsuit within days, which could further delay sending the ballot.
Whether or not West and Hawkins votes are allowed could have a significant impact on Wisconsin, where the shaver is close. The Green Party’s 2016 presidential nominee, Jill Stein, won 31,006 votes in the state, more than the margin Trump received 22,177 votes over Hillary Clinton.
The state Supreme Court, by ideology, said in a ruling separated by 4-3, that ballots cannot be sent at this time. Local elections clerks are facing a September 17 deadline for mailing an absentee ballot to the person who requested it. There is also a federal deadline of September 19 for mailing ballots to voters abroad and to voters in the military. As of Thursday, nearly 1 million absentee votes were requested in Wisconsin.
September 17 is the deadline for the clerk to mail absentee ballots to those who have already requested on file, but those who request later are still mailed a ballot. October 29 is the deadline for most voters to request a ballot by mail. Returned ballots must be received by the polling place, which closes at 8 PM on Election Day.
Wisconsin Election Commissioner Meagan Wolfe said shortly before the court order, some clerks would have already mailed ballots without names for West and Hawkins. If West or Hawkins gets on the ballot, the clerk will send a new ballot to the voters, Wolf said. Voters are also likely to receive instructions that the first ballot is still valid unless the second ballot is mailed, she said.
This scenario is “an amazing problem,” Wolfe said.
The High Court requested detailed information about who requested the absentee ballot, who requested the absentee ballot, who received the mail, when the mail was sent, and where the mail was sent to the Election Commission by 5pm on Thursday.
As a result of Wolf’s submission on the deadline, local clerks indicated that they had sent about 380,000 ballots. However, she said she cannot personally guarantee that the information is accurate.
For example, the spreadsheet shows the city of Madison marked as sending about 77,000 ballots. Poetry clerk Maribeth Witzel-Behl said the poem was all ready, but after the court ruling it froze the goods and has not yet put anything in the mail.
Commission spokesman Reid Magney said New York City marked the number of ballots sent to the statewide voter registration system, and said the commission could not distinguish between what was marked as sent and what was actually sent. He said Madison officials would have decided to mark the ballot as sent on the date the mailing label was created.
Wolfe said the committee received responses in 63 of 72 counties, but only in 25 municipalities. She gave the court the names and addresses of about 100 voters who requested the ballot.
The three free judges of the court objected, “Given the breadth of the information requested and the minimum time allotted to obtain the information (courts), we are demanding the impossible from about 1,850 municipal clerks across the state.”
Gillian Drummond, a spokesman for the State Department of Justice, representing the elections committee, declined to comment. Hawkins’ lawyer did not immediately reply to the message.
Election officials are urging voters to return their ballots as soon as possible because of slow mail delivery and concerns over the expected number of absentee votes. State elections officials estimated that more than 2 million out of about 3 million voters in the state will vote absenteeism, primarily because of concerns about the coronavirus pandemic.
There are more than 170 lawsuits nationwide for electoral proceedings often filed by two major political parties or allies that have injected a new level of uncertainty into competition that has already been halted by the pandemic. There have also been lawsuits for attempts by third parties such as Greens or candidates such as West to participate in the ballot in other states such as Arizona, Pennsylvania and Virginia.