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Our perspective: Take voting matters into your own hands

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Dot the I’s, cross the T’s and, oh yeah, don’t forget the ZIP code.

Election season is upon us – there’s only a month to go before the November general election – and we could tell by another flurry of court fights over absentee ballots.

Last week, a liberal group, Rise, Inc., which encourages students to vote, and Jason Rivera, a voter who lives in Madison, filed suit in Dane County Circuit Court, against the state Elections Commission and Madison City Clerk Maribeth Witzel-Behl. A second, similar suit was filed in Madison three days later by the League of Women Voters.

Rise argues election officials should be allowed to accept absentee ballots with partial witness addresses as long as they can discern the correct addresses. They also argue state law does not specify what constitutes an address.

Rise says voters should not be disenfranchised because of “immaterial errors” on ballot envelopes like a missing ZIP code.

It’s a counter to the ruling by a Waukesha County judge in September who held that election officials couldn’t fix or fill in missing address information on absentee ballot envelopes. That means election officials have to mail back the ballot envelopes (and the ballot) to the voter and have them correct or “cure” the information on the ballot envelope and get it back to the election clerk by 8 p.m. on Election Day, Nov. 8.

It’s not a new fight. The state Election Commission (WEC) issued a directive to election clerks in 2016 to allow them to “cure” ballot envelopes with minor deficiencies. Then the hotly contested 2020 presidential election brought all sorts of allegations of voter fraud and a “stolen” election.

That election was held during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic when voters were hunkered down at home and many did not want to stand in line at the polls. Not surprisingly, absentee ballot voting – in-person or by mail – jumped to 59.7 percent of all votes in Wisconsin.

That triggered concern over absentee voting practices and state Republican legislators told the WEC to withdraw that guidance or resubmit it as an administrative rule.

It became a rule in July, but later that month the Republican-controlled Administrative Rules Committee struck it down.

The WEC maintained the 2016 guidance to clerks still stood, leading to a conservative-backed lawsuit that resulted in the Waukesha judge’s ruling in September. The judge there, however, did not specify what information is required to constitute an address.

So, that leaves us here, today, just a month away from the election with court fights still raging – and this one could conceivably end up before the conservative-leaning state Supreme Court before it’s over. Hopefully before Election Day.

Timing becomes important because absentee ballots are already being sent out. But election clerks across the state will face a pinch on how to handle ballot envelopes with deficiencies in the last few days before the election. Mail them back to the voter? That might not be enough time for the voter to receive it and mail it back in or deliver it in person by 8 p.m. on Election Day.

The number of ballot envelopes with deficient information is not large – but it’s not small either. The Wisconsin Legislative Audit Bureau reviewed nearly 15,000 ballot envelopes from the 2020 election across 29 municipalities and found that 1,022 were missing parts of witness addresses. That’s about 7%. Only 15, or 0.1%, had no witness address.

Do we believe that the ballot of a legitimate voter should be tossed out because it’s missing the name of the state (it’s Wisconsin), or a ZIP code? No, we do not. Do we like the idea of the courts determining if your mail-in ballot counts or not? No, we do not.

Our suggestion is that you take matters into your own hands.

You can do that a couple of ways. You can march down to the polls on Nov. 8 and cast your ballot in person; or you can mail or drop it off at the clerk’s office – but only after you’ve double-checked it for missing information.

It’s not that hard.

The ballot envelope requires you, the voter, to sign it and date it. It also requires the signature of an adult witness who attests to your address, which is listed on the ballot envelope. That witness must also “provide (his or her) house number and street name or fire number and street name, city, state and ZIP code.”

(Those in rural areas without a house or fire number can provide rural route numbers and box numbers, along with city, state and ZIP code.)

If your vote is important to you, you should at least give it the same attention as you would to the address on the Christmas package you are going to mail next month to Aunt Myrtle in South Carolina.

And don’t forget to fill out the ballot itself, too.


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