Judge Allows Counting of Absentee Ballots with Incomplete Witness Addresses, Potentially Heading to Wisconsin Supreme Court

MADISON, Wis. – A Dane County judge has made a ruling allowing clerks in Wisconsin to count absentee ballots that have missing witness address information, opposing a previous ruling by Waukesha County. This decision may lead to an appeal to the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

Judge Ryan Nilsestuen of the Dane County Circuit Court issued two rulings on Tuesday regarding witness addresses on absentee ballot envelopes. According to state law, absentee voter witnesses are required to sign the envelopes and include their address. However, the definition of what constitutes an address has been a subject of multiple legal battles in recent years.

In one case, Nilsestuen sided with the League of Women Voters, stating that rejecting absentee ballots due to incomplete witness address information violates the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964. Citing the Act, which prohibits denying the right to vote because of errors or omissions on records or papers, Nilsestuen argued that missing ZIP codes for witness addresses are “trivial defects” and do not affect the eligibility of the voter.

In another case, Nilsestuen ruled in favor of the youth organizing group Rise, Inc., stating that a witness address should be considered as “a place where the witness can be communicated with.” He highlighted the need for the legislature to pass a bill to define the term “address” in order to avoid confusion.

The recent rulings by Nilsestuen add to a long-standing controversy surrounding absentee ballots in Wisconsin. The issue of witness address information has been subject to lawsuits and legal disputes.

In 2016, the Wisconsin Elections Commission approved guidance stating that a witness address on an absentee ballot envelope should include a street number, street name, and municipality. This guidance was followed by clerks until the aftermath of the 2020 election when former President Donald Trump attempted to challenge his loss in Wisconsin.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court, in a 4-3 majority opinion, rejected the Trump campaign’s lawsuit on the grounds that it was filed after the election. Justice Brian Hagedorn noted that state law does not clearly define what constitutes an address on an absentee ballot.

The recent ruling by a Waukesha County judge stated that clerks cannot fill in missing witness address information on absentee ballot envelopes, leading to the rejection of such ballots. This ruling has made Wisconsin an outlier compared to other cases across the country.

Despite these rulings, there is still a lack of clarity on how election workers should handle witness addresses. Dane County Clerk Scott McDonell emphasized the need for a statewide standard established by the Wisconsin Supreme Court to ensure fairness and consistency in elections.

According to Nilsestuen’s decision, 2,239 absentee ballots were rejected in the November 2022 election due to incomplete certifications.

The Republican-controlled State Legislature declined to comment on Nilsestuen’s rulings.

This ruling by the Dane County judge introduces a conflicting perspective in the ongoing debate over witness addresses on absentee ballots in Wisconsin. It remains to be seen whether this decision will be appealed to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, further prolonging the dispute.