MADISON, Wis. — Local election officials must fill in missing municipality names when possible in absentee voting witnesses’ address under a policy the state Elections Commission approved Friday, a move that ensures hundreds of Milwaukee ballots will count.
A new Wisconsin law states that absentee ballots missing a witness address don’t count. The law doesn’t define how much address information is necessary, however, leading to questions from local election clerks about how to handle ballots with missing information.
State Elections Commission staff released a policy on Oct. 4 saying witness addresses must include at least a street number, street name and municipality name. Clerks can’t fill in missing elements without obtaining the voter’s consent, according to the guidelines.
Milwaukee Elections Commission Administrator Neil Albrecht raised concerns about that approach, saying his commission has already received hundreds of absentee ballots that lack adequate witness address information. Many clerks recognize partial addresses and can fill in the missing elements on their own, he said, but forcing them to get consent from those voters to creates too much work before the Nov. 8 election, especially when absentee voters are typically out of town.
The commission was set to vote Friday to approve the policy. Moments before the meeting, the staff released revisions that would have allowed clerks to fill in missing municipality names without voter consent if the clerks so chose.
Commission members said it makes sense to allow clerks familiar with their communities to fill that blank, but they should be ordered to do it across the board to avoid accusations of favoritism or political bias.
The panel tweaked the language to mandate that all clerks fill in missing municipality names if they’re able to ascertain that from other information on the ballot envelope or other reliable sources. The commission also added a provision requiring clerks to initial additions they make to the addresses for tracking purposes in a recount.
Albrecht said before the vote that the change is the right move.
The new language will enable his office to quickly rehabilitate about 600 absentee ballots, he said. The policy also will help his office deal with the hundreds more absentee ballots he anticipates he’ll receive without the full witness address ahead of the election, he said.
Commission Chairman Mark Thomsen told staff that in the future policies should be vetted through the commission before they’re issued.
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