vision 2020

Wisconsin Ballot-Access Legal Battle Could Screw Up Voting by Mail

Green presidential candidate Howie Hawkins could affect the race in Wisconsin via a ballot-access fight whether or not he wins in court. Photo: Hans Pennink/AP/Shutterstock

In 2016 Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein got just over 31,000 votes in Wisconsin, a total that exceeded Donald Trump’s 22,000 vote margin over Hillary Clinton in that pivotal state. In 2020, the Green Party could have a big impact on the Wisconsin outcome even if it doesn’t get a single vote there. That’s because the conservative-controlled Wisconsin Supreme Court is citing a Green Party ballot-access lawsuit as a rationale for holding up the mailing of a vast number of mail ballots, and perhaps voiding and remailing hundreds of thousands already sent. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel explains:

The state Supreme Court told election officials Thursday that absentee ballots should not be mailed for now so the justices can determine whether they should include the Green Party’s presidential ticket.  

The 4-3 order left open the possibility of reprinting 2.3 million ballots and delaying the printing of others — moves that election officials said would cause them to miss deadlines set by state law. 

The order fell along ideological lines, with the conservatives in the majority and the liberals in dissent.

Surprise, surprise.

The dispute involves a state election commission decision (which was really a party-line tie) to deny the Greens presidential ballot-line access because their petitions listed different home addresses for veep candidate Angela Walker, a technical violation inadvertently created by a Walker change of residence during the period in question. Now, the state Supreme Court is reviewing the matter, and its conservative majority wants to put the entire mail-ballot process on hold until it figures out whether Hawkins and Walker will indeed offer lefty voters an alternative to Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.

The mess this is already creating is pretty severe, and will get a lot worse if election officials are ordered to reprint mail ballots:

Meagan Wolfe, the executive director of the Elections Commission, told reporters just before the order was issued that some absentee ballots likely have gone out but she didn’t know how many. Later, she filed an affidavit that said the number could be more than 378,000.

Clerks in large cities had been planning to mail their ballots in the coming days, she said. Those communities need to send their ballots out in batches over a few days because they have so many of them.

Clerks need to start soon because of a state law that requires them to mail them by Sept. 17, Wolfe said. Nearly a million Wisconsin voters have requested absentee ballots so far and mail voting this year is expected to hit a record because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Even if the state’s mailing deadline is waived, federal law requires the mailing of ballots to overseas and military voters by September 19. If the state court ultimately orders the addition of the Green candidates, there will be logistical problems with getting them quickly reprinted, along with new complications over procedures each county election office would have to develop to ensure that earlier invalid ballots aren’t cast. And as each day goes by, the odds rise that the chaos surrounding Wisconsin’s April primary could be reduplicated. Remember this (per the New York Times)?:

Cracks in Wisconsin’s vote-by-mail operation are now emerging after the state’s scramble to expand that effort on the fly for voters who feared going to the polls in Tuesday’s elections. The takeaways — that the election network and the Postal Service were pushed to the brink of their capabilities, and that mistakes were clearly made — are instructive for other states if they choose to broaden vote-by-mail methods without sufficient time, money and planning.

More than 860,000 completed absentee ballots had been returned by Tuesday, already a record for Wisconsin spring elections. But for thousands of other voters, who never received their ballots, there was only one recourse: putting their health at risk and defying a stay-at-home order to vote in person during the coronavirus pandemic. Many chose not to show up.

As part of a pattern wherein conservative judges at every level insisted on strict adherence to state voting laws, even while making it hard to do so, an effort to give Wisconsin voters extra time to receive and send back mail ballots was rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court. Aside from the real if hard-to-measure impact on overall turnout of slow mail-ballot processing by the state and the postal service, Wisconsin rejected 23,000 mail ballots for various reasons, including late receipt and failure to comply with the state’s onerous signature-witnessing requirements.

If the impending chaos over late revision of mail ballots to include the Greens isn’t bad enough, there’s separate litigation on behalf of every Republican’s best friend Kanye West, who was also excluded from the ballot by the election commission (in his case, for late filing of petitions). This assurance from the judge handling the case is discouraging:

Judge John Zakowski said Wednesday he was likely to rule in that case by next week. He expressed some concerns about the deadlines for mailing ballots but also said the state could send a second ballot to voters if he later determines West’s name should be added to the ballot. 

Easy and breezy, eh? And this is in the state that could decide the whole enchilada.

Wisconsin Ballot-Access Fight Could Screw Up Mail Voting