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Court rules absentee ballots with minor problems OK to count

Wisconsin-Absentee Ballots
Posted at 1:15 PM, Jan 03, 2024

MADISON (AP) — Wisconsin election clerks can accept absentee ballots that contain minor errors such as missing portions of witness addresses, a court ruled Tuesday in a legal fight that has pitted conservatives against liberals in the battleground state.

Dane County Circuit Court ruled in favor of the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin in its lawsuit to clarify voting rights protections for voters whose absentee ballots have minor errors in listing their witnesses’ addresses.

The ruling means that absentee ballots with certain technical witness address defects will not be rejected in future elections, the league said.

A Waukesha County Circuit Court, siding with Republicans, barred the Wisconsin Elections Commission in 2022 from using longstanding guidance for fixing minor witness address problems on absentee ballots without contacting the voter. That ruling left absentee voters at risk of having their ballots rejected due to technical omissions or errors with no guarantee that they would be notified and given the chance to correct any errors and have their votes counted.

The League’s lawsuit argued that rejecting absentee ballots for the omission of certain witness address components violated the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits denying the right to vote based on an error that has no material bearing on determining voting eligibility.

In Tuesday's order, the Dane County Circuit Court wrote, “the Witness Address Requirement is not material to whether a voter is qualified. . . . As such, rejecting ballots for trivial mistakes in the Witness Address requirement directly violates the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964.”

“All voters deserve to have their votes counted regardless of whether they vote in person or absentee,” Debra Cronmiller, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, said in a news release. “Small errors or omissions on the absentee certificate envelope should not prevent voters from exercising their constitutional rights.”

The Fair Elections Center, a Washington-based, nonpartisan voting rights and election reform advocate, sued on behalf of the league.

“Wisconsinites should not have their right to vote denied due to technical errors, especially when they are not uniformly given an opportunity to remedy such issues,” said Jon Sherman, the center's litigation director. “Congress enacted the Civil Rights Act to prohibit exactly this type of disenfranchisement, and the court’s order today enforces that federal law’s protections as to four categories of absentee ballots.”

A telephone message seeking comment on the ruling was left Tuesday evening at the offices of the Wisconsin Republican Party.