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Assembly elections committee considers new rules for absentee ballot witnesses

The Wisconsin Assembly Committee on Campaigns and Elections held a public hearing Wednesday on a bill that would define exactly what address components a person is required to include when serving as a witness for an absentee ballot. 

State law requires that a voter casting an absentee ballot have a witness provide a signature and address on the ballot envelope. The application of this law has caused a significant amount of debate in recent years and triggered multiple lawsuits. 

While the definition of an address is included in other parts of state law, the section on the witness address does not include a definition, which has left election clerks to fend for themselves when determining which ballots should be counted and which ballots are ineligible. Until a 2022 court ruling, clerks also had the ability to “cure” ballot envelopes by adding missing information — which was often a municipality name or zip code. 

Last month, a Dane County judge ruled that clerks can accept absentee ballots with missing components of a witness address so long as the clerk can discern how to contact the witness. Republicans have criticized the ruling as being too lenient. Late last month, the judge ordered the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC) to issue guidance to clerks on which components of an address are required. 

The bill, authored by Rep. Donna Rozar (R-Marshfield) and Sen. Cory Tomczyk (R-Mosinee), would require that the witness’ address include the street name and number, municipality, state and zip code. A Republican-proposed amendment to the bill would only require the street number, street name and municipality. 

The committee’s chair, Rep. Scott Krug (R-Nekoosa), said the committee may hold an executive session next week. The address bill and amendment need to be approved by the committee to be forwarded to the whole Assembly. 

“Not only should the courts not be making up the rules, WEC shouldn’t be making up the rules,” Rozar said at the hearing. “That’s why I believe they need to be as clear as possible. There needs to be no ambiguity in there.”

But at the hearing, Democrats and some election officials worried about making the requirement too restrictive for an aspect of casting an absentee ballot that has nothing to do with the voter’s eligibility. Rock County Clerk Lisa Tollefson compared it to getting a bad grade on a group project at school because a partner didn’t do enough. 

“I keep thinking back to when I was in school and you had to do a project with a partner,” Tollefson said. “Sometimes that one person had to do all the work and the partner didn’t, and then that person forgot to write one number down and the whole thing got a failing grade because of that. That’s kind of what the bill does. Imagine they forgot their zip code and now you can’t count the ballot because of that.” 

Claire Woodall-Vogg, the executive director of the Milwaukee Elections Commission, said that the city agrees there should be more clarity in the statute, but that requiring too many components could amount to a “literacy test” for witnesses. 

“The city recognizes that the Legislature is attempting to provide greater clarification to municipal clerks across the state who have been left in limbo for years regarding what qualifies as a complete witness address,” she said. “However, the above guidance is overly prescriptive and creates what could easily become a literacy test for voters’ witnesses. The city supports requiring a witness’ house number and street name. That information is essential to knowing where the witness resides. The city however, believes requiring the municipality, state and zip code is overly prescriptive and unnecessary to locate the witness in most if not all of the circumstances.” 

Woodall-Vogg went on to say that in a majority of cases, the witness’ address is in the same household, same apartment building or same block as the voter, meaning that it is easy to determine where the witness lives if some components are missing because the address is the same or similar to the voter’s. 

Other complaints centered around the fact that voters and witnesses can put many different things on the address line that allow the clerk to determine where they live. For example, clerks have brought up examples in which a person’s spouse serves as the witness and on the address writes “ditto” or “same as above.” Under the bill, these responses would invalidate the ballot. 

Rep. Lee Snodgrass (D-Appleton) said she wants state law to account for these cases without disenfranchising people. 

“I really worry about those cases, where we’re saying to a clerk, you can’t do what you know is right to preserve this voter’s vote, to make it count,” Snodgrass said.

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originally published at https%3A%2F%2Fwisconsinexaminer.com%2F2024%2F02%2F07%2Fassembly-elections-committee-considers-bill-to-define-address-requirement-for-absentee-ballot-witnesses%2F by Henry Redman

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