Overhauling Absentee Ballot Standards: Dane County Judge Rules Witness Address Requirements Invalid

City, State – In a significant development regarding the standards for a witness’ address on an absentee ballot envelope, a Dane County judge has issued two rulings that will reshape the criteria for these ballots to be counted. The judge’s decisions include dismissing the Elections Commission’s requirement for street number, street name, and municipality on the envelope. Additionally, the judge ruled that clerks cannot reject absentee ballots if witnesses fail to include certain information, such as the ZIP code or municipality. These rulings contradict a previous decision made by a Waukesha County judge in September 2022, which prohibited local clerks from filling in missing address information provided by witnesses to absentee voters.

These rulings are the outcome of two lawsuits, one of which was filed by Rise Inc., an organization dedicated to mobilizing young voters in the year 2022. Rise Inc. argued that the Election Commission’s guidance on what constitutes an address was improper. While a different Dane County judge did not grant an injunction ahead of the 2022 election, Judge Ryan Nilsestuen agreed with Rise Inc.’s argument that a witness address should include information necessary to reasonably discern the location where the witness can be reached. The judge rejected the argument put forth by the Elections Commission and GOP lawmakers, who believed a more restrictive definition should be applied. According to Nilsestuen, the Legislature failed to clearly define what qualifies as an address for absentee balloting.

In another lawsuit, the League of Women Voters contended that a witness address is only considered incomplete if the entire section is left blank. Although a different Dane County judge refused to issue an emergency order in October 2022, and an appeals court declined to consider a request to overturn that decision, Nilsestuen ruled in favor of the League of Women Voters. The judge found that the rejection of absentee ballots for “errors or omissions that are immaterial” to a voter’s qualifications, including information such as a witness’ municipality, is prohibited under a provision in the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964.

As a result, Nilsestuen granted the League of Women Voters’ request to prevent clerks from rejecting absentee ballots due to errors or omissions made by witnesses. The ruled prohibited rejection in cases where witnesses listed their street name, street number, and municipality but omitted other information like the state name or ZIP code. Similarly, rejection would not be allowed if witnesses listed a street number and street name but left out the municipality when residing in the same place as the voter. The use of terms such as “same” or “ditto” to indicate that the witness’ address is the same as the voter’s would also not warrant rejection. Lastly, if witnesses listed a street number, street name, and ZIP code but failed to provide a municipality, the ballot should not be rejected.

These rulings signify a departure from previous standards and provide more flexibility with absentee ballot envelopes. The judge’s emphasis on the need for clear definitions by the Legislature highlights the complexity and ambiguity surrounding this issue. As the debate over voting standards continues, the impacts of these rulings on future elections remain uncertain.