A Republican-controlled legislative rules committee suspended a rule today that authorized local election clerks to fix information on absentee ballots.
The Republican-majority Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules threw out the rule on a 6-4 vote in an executive session, saying that the Wisconsin Elections Commission did not have the authority to implement the rule. They say that decision should be up to lawmakers.
Previously, if an election clerk received an absentee ballot that had, say, had a typo in their street name, the clerk would be able to fix the error themselves.
The rule was first implemented in 2016, and was in effect during the 2020 presidential election.
Last week, the Elections Commission submitted an emergency rule further cementing clerks ability to correct errors.
Rachel Rodriguez is the election specialist at the Dane County Clerk’s Office. She says that today’s decision is in regards to last week’s rule.
“So the Elections Commission submitted this emergency rule, and the committee decided that they were not going to approve it, that they were going to suspend the rule. The practical response is that, in reality, it doesn’t really change much in that with the suspension of the rule, it still leaves in place the 2016 guidance that the Elections Commission issued on this topic. Clerks are still able to follow that guidance,” Rodriguez says.
While the clerks are still able to fix ballot errors under a non-binding guidance from the Elections Commission, that is now further in jeopardy. Last week, the Republican Party of Waukesha County filed a lawsuit against the Elections Commission, calling for a ban on clerks and election officials’ ability to fix the errors.
In recent months, Republican state lawmakers have attempted to pass several bills regarding how elections are run. Those bills have all been vetoed by Governor Tony Evers.
Republicans on the committee called the issue open-and-shut. Representative Stephen Nass, a Republican of Whitewater, who also sits as the chair of the committee, says that the Wisconsin Elections Commission rule is plainly illegal.
“The absentee ballot procedures are mandatory, they are in law. They were passed by duly elected legislatures through a legislative process. That statute that really matters here has been around since the 80s, and it says it shall be construed as mandatory, those are the requirements that must be fulfilled to have a valid vote. It indicates that in contravention of the procedures specified in these conditions, that ballot may not be counted. That’s our law, it’s pretty clear and right here in black and white,” Nass says.
Democratic Representative Gery Hebl of Sun Prairie, however, lambasted the decision to suspend the rule, calling the decision a partisan ploy.
“We have an Elections Commission that has a function, and is made up of 3 Republicans and 3 Democrats, and they have given us some rules that will really help us. We have clerks who are overworked and underpaid, and are fantastic people, and we give them no guidance by suspending this rule. This is a horrible mistake, but it continues the road that Republicans are going down to try and make elections questionable. (They are) trying to provide litigation so that any time their candidate loses they can go to the courts. They don’t have the votes, so they have to cut down the number of people who are voting any way they can do it,” Hebl says.
After today’s ruling, organizations on both sides of the political spectrum gave their thoughts on the decision.
Conservative legal firm Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, or WILL, applauded the decision, saying that the matter should be reserved for the legislature.
Meanwhile, the Survival Coalition of Wisconsin, an organization advocating for people with disabilities, say that the ruling will negatively impact people who are disabled.
Last year, the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau reviewed almost 15,000 absentee ballots in Wisconsin, and found that around 7%, or 1,022, of all absentee ballots were missing parts of a voting witness’ address. Of that 7%, clerks had corrected the information on 66 ballots.
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