By: Mikaela Phillips  

The April 2020 presidential primary in Wisconsin drew national attention during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic. Even the United States Supreme Court weighed in, blocking the extension of absentee voting beyond the statutory deadline that requires ballots to be received by 8 p.m. on election day.

In April 2020, the state saw a surge in voting by mail. Absentee ballots accounted for roughly 6% of the votes tallied in the 2016 and 2018 general elections in Wisconsin. In stark contrast, over 60% of the total votes counted in the April primary were cast via absentee ballots. However, that figure does not paint the whole picture of rise in vote by-mail efforts. The state rejected over 23,000 mail-in ballots during the primary, most often due to witnesses’ failure to complete one line of the certification form. 

Amidst the backdrop of an ongoing pandemic – facing a shortage of poll workers and continued expected surge in mail-in voting, not to mention growing concerns over delivery delays by USPS  — the key battleground state tried to get ahead of the curve for the November election. 

While voters may request an absentee ballot up to five days preceding the election, Wisconsin law mandates municipal clerks to begin mailing out absentee ballots to voters with applications on file forty-seven days before the federal election.

One week before clerks were set to begin mailing out ballots, the Wisconsin Supreme Court halted the process amid a ballot access suit brought by Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins. On August 21, the Wisconsin Elections Commission decided to keep Hawkins off the ballot after a challenge to the validity of signatures on his filing paperwork. Two weeks later, Hawkins filed suit, requesting injunctive relief to appear on the ballot.

Noting the looming September 17 deadline for voters to receive their absentee ballot, in addition to the projected mail-in voting rate at 80%, the Wisconsin Supreme Court rejected Hawkins claim for relief. As counties had already begun to distribute ballots to local municipalities, it would be costly to order the creation and reprinting of new ballots. Furthermore, such relief would create a “substantial possibility of confusion among voters who had already received, and possibly returned, the original ballots.” Had Hawkins filed his suit in a timelier fashion, the court may have reached a different outcome. However, under the circumstances, “it would be unfair to Wisconsin voters and to the other candidates on the general election ballot to interfere with an election that, for all intents and purposes, has already begun.”

The court’s rationale does not bode well for rapper Kanye West’s efforts to get on the ballot in Wisconsin. On September 11, the Brown County Circuit Court upheld the Wisconsin Elections Commission’s decision to keep West off the ballot for failing to submit his nomination paperwork on time – missing the deadline by minutes, maybe seconds. While West can appeal to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, the court will likely be unmoved given the Hawkins decision and its concern for timely ballot distribution so close to the election.

This week, clerks raced to mail approximately 1 million absentee ballots to voters. Now, we wait to see what issues arise before the final deadline to request an absentee ballot on October 29, 2020.


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