Can I Get a Witness? (cont.): Wisconsin Absentee Rules Create Controversy


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Can I get a witness
Can I get a witness
Can I get a witness
Somebody … 

— Marvin Gaye

Back in 2013, I referenced the great Marvin Gaye in a Florida dispute over whether to require witness signatures for absentee ballots. Three years later, Wisconsin is facing a similar question of “Can I Get a Witness?” as a new state law requiring witness addresses could end up invalidating some absentee ballots. The Wisconsin State Journal has more:

Wisconsin elections officials are standing firm on what must be included on an absentee ballot in order for it to be counted, a position supported by state law that could lead to thousands of votes being tossed in November.

A new Wisconsin law says absentee ballots that are “missing the address of a witness” can’t be counted, but it doesn’t define how much address information is needed for the ballot to count. That’s led to questions from local election clerks about how to handle ballots with missing information.

The state Elections Commission advised earlier that the witness should provide a street number, street name and name of municipality, a stance that Elections Commission administrator Mike Haas reiterated in a memo Wednesday. 

A more strict reading of the law, requiring additional information such as a zip code, state and apartment number, is defensible but “seemed overly harsh in practice,” Haas said.

The recommendation will be voted on at the commission’s Friday meeting.

Local officials are scrambling to figure out how to cure ballots with missing witness information:

Milwaukee elections administrator Neil Albrecht, who told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel last week that the requirement could lead to thousands of ballots not counting, did not immediately return messages seeking comment Wednesday.

Albrecht had asked the commission for the authority to send letters to voters saying his staff will fill in the witnesses’ address unless the voter advises otherwise. But the commission told clerks they must obtain the voter’s consent before adding such information. [The memo is here and lays out the various ways in which officials can get consent to add the necessary information.]

Officials worry that the number of ballots affected could grow to an unmanageable size as Election Day approaches:

There were 70,740 absentee ballots cast in Wisconsin as of Oct. 7 — only a fraction of the total absentee votes that ultimately will be cast, as more in-person early voting locations are opened and the Nov. 8 election nears … 

Madison City Clerk Maribeth Witzel-Behl said Wednesday that her office has received five absentee ballots without witnesses’ full addresses, but the problems elsewhere in the state are making her nervous.

Witzel-Behl said it’s early enough that the city could receive a significant number of incomplete ballots much closer to Election Day when there would be less time for corrections to be made.

The issue is arising against the backdrop of other recent election law changes made by the state:

The law requiring witness addresses on absentee ballots was signed by Gov. Scott Walker in March. Before the new law, witnesses were supposed to include their addresses but it wasn’t required in the law, so ballots were still counted if the address was missing.

Given the antipathy between the parties that already exists between the parties in Wisconsin, I wonder if this isn’t fodder for yet another lawsuit – but I worry that any litigation could end up putting election officials in a bind with regard to addressing incomplete ballots. It’s yet another example of how the desire to protect the integrity of absentee votes (via witness requirements) can create friction with voters’ ability to cast those ballots … with election officials, once again, caught in the middle.

26 days until Election Day – stay tuned …

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