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Liberal groups sue over Wisconsin absentee voting rules, cite ‘voter disenfranchisement’

WI State Journal:Mitchell Schmidt | Published on 7/22/2023

One of the nation’s largest Democratic organizations has argued in a new legal challenge that Wisconsin’s absentee ballot rules — including witness signature requirements and the state Supreme Court’s 2022 ruling barring the use of absentee ballot drop boxes — violate the Wisconsin Constitution and disenfranchise voters.

The lawsuit, filed in Dane County Circuit Court against the Wisconsin Elections Commission, seeks to change voting rules in the pivotal battleground state ahead of the 2024 presidential election.

“Previous campaign cycles have put a much needed spotlight on the blatant attempts to use restricted access to absentee voting as a means of voter suppression,” Aneesa McMillan, deputy executive director of Priorities USA, one of the plaintiffs in the suit, said in a statement. “As a result of this, vulnerable communities, including people of color, face extraordinary barriers to casting their ballots.”

The other plaintiffs in the suit, filed Thursday by Elias Law Group, are the Wisconsin Alliance for Retired Americans and Waunakee resident William Franks Jr.

The three matters targeted in the lawsuit are: Wisconsin’s requirement that returned absentee ballots must come with a valid witness signature; the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s 2022 ruling that unmanned absentee ballot drop boxes are illegal; and state law setting an 8 p.m. Election Day deadline for when voters can “cure” or correct errors on their absentee ballots.

Voters must have a witness sign a certificate, typically printed on the back of an absentee ballot envelope, for the ballot to be valid. The lawsuit challenges the requirement as unnecessary and unfairly based on the voter’s ability to find a willing third party to act as a witness.

“The Witness Requirement is extremely burdensome for many voters,” the lawsuit states. “More than 600,000 Wisconsin voters — including members of the (Wisconsin Alliance for Retired Americans) — do not have anyone in their household who can act as a witness.”

Another target in the lawsuit is the state Supreme Court’s 2022 ruling that absentee ballots must be delivered by mail or in person to a local clerk’s office or designated alternate site.

The 4-3 ruling effectively barred the use of absentee ballot drop boxes, which were used in hundreds of communities across the state during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The lawsuit states drop boxes are “secure, accessible and efficient” and are critical for voters “who are unable to vote in person because of disability, scheduling conflicts, lack of transportation, or other hardship.”

“Drop boxes allow absentee voters to return their ballots through a convenient, safe, and reliable method that ensures that they will be returned on time,” according to the lawsuit. “The court-imposed prohibition on drop boxes, by contrast, has contributed to voter disenfranchisement.”

The battle over the long-standing use of drop boxes has persisted since the 2020 election, due in part to baseless claims of election fraud by former President Donald Trump, who lost Wisconsin to President Joe Biden by about 21,000 votes.

Proponents of the free-standing, mailbox-like structures have said they were a secure and safe voting option, especially at a time when there still wasn’t a vaccine for COVID-19 and public health officials were warning against large gatherings, like at polling places.

At the same time, the large number of absentee ballots requested that year, combined with cutbacks at the U.S. Postal Service, led many to worry their ballots wouldn’t make it back in time if they were mailed. More than 40% of voters cast ballots absentee in 2020.

Some Republicans argue that adding any unauthorized method for returning ballots opens the door to fraudulent activity, even though the boxes were locked and emptied by election workers. Multiple reviews of the 2020 election also found no evidence of widespread fraud.

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The final item in the lawsuit focuses on state law requiring that absentee ballot envelopes must be “cured,” or corrected of any errors, by 8 p.m. on Election Day or the ballot will not be counted.

“Seniors in Wisconsin take their constitutional right to vote seriously,” Ross Winklbauer Sr., president of the Wisconsin Alliance for Retired Americans, said in a statement. “We are also the most likely to need to vote absentee because of health issues or transportation challenges.”

“We are asking the Court to remove these unnecessary barriers so all voters in Wisconsin, especially older voters, can cast a ballot that will actually be counted,” he added.

If the lawsuit reaches the state’s highest court, it would be taken up by a Wisconsin Supreme Court with a new 4-3 liberal majority. Liberal Justice Janet Protasiewicz, who defeated conservative Dan Kelly in the April election, joins the court Aug. 1.