Members of the Wisconsin Elections Commission on Wednesday voted unanimously to delay enforcing a state law on the books since 2011 that they argued could sow confusion and open the state up to an Iowa-style election meltdown during Wisconsin’s presidential primary in April.
With a 6-0 vote, both Democratic and Republican commissioners scrapped a plan for local elections officials to send two separate ballots to all absentee Wisconsin voters — at least 81,000 people — ahead of the statewide April 7 election, even while acknowledging their action is likely violating state law. The April 7 election features a presidential primary, state Supreme Court general election and other local races.
“The law here is very clear, but the law isn’t going to be easy for our clerks to follow,” said WEC chairman Dean Knudson, a Republican. “In following the law, there’s at least going to be inconvenience and confusion, and, at the worst, there could be chaos.”
The commission’s now-defunct plan was formulated to comply with state law, which requires local election officials to send out ballots to voters that involve federal races, such as a presidential primary, no later than 47 days before the election. That means clerks would need to send out ballots for the April 7 election by Feb. 20, only two days after the Feb. 18 primary, which will determine which state and local candidates make it on the April 7 ballot.
Because the two days between Feb. 18 and 20 isn’t enough time for officials to finish certifying the primary winners, it would be virtually impossible to get the appropriate candidates on the general ballot to comply with the law.
To deal with the issue, the Elections Commission initially told local officials to first send out an “A” ballot to absentee voters no later than Feb. 20 with just the presidential preference primary, and a “B,” or complete ballot at a later date that would include both the presidential primary and the state and local candidates that advanced through the February spring election.
Democratic commissioner Ann Jacobs called the plan “insanity.”
The plan garnered negative feedback from some local elections officials, including Madison City Clerk Maribeth Witzel-Behl, who told the commission she feared the two-ballot scheme would reduce the number of votes in the presidential preference or Supreme Court elections because voters, out of confusion, could mark their presidential preference, or “A” ballot, while not completing the “B” ballot featuring state and local races. She envisioned another scenario where a voter could complete the presidential preference, or “A” ballot, as well as the full “B” ballot, but leave blank the “B” ballot’s presidential preference section. The problem stems from the fact clerks, if they receive both ballots, would only count the “B,” or full ballot.
“We are deeply concerned that this procedure will compromise the integrity of the April 7 Election,” Witzel-Behl wrote.
With the presidential primary looming and complaints from local elections clerks, commissioners reversed course on Wednesday and are now recommending to local clerks they essentially ignore state law for at least the rest of 2020 and only send out a full “B” ballot to absentee voters at a later date that includes both the presidential and state and local races.
Clerks are being instructed to follow federal law with regard to military and overseas voters, who will still receive an “A” and “B” ballot. That will only affect several thousand voters.
Voters can return both “A” and “B” ballots, in which case elections clerks would only count the “B” ballot. By only returning an “A” ballot, however, a voter would only be voting in the presidential primary, and not in state and local races.
The state’s 47-day rule has been on the books since 2011; however, it wasn’t enforced for all absentee voters in the 2012 and 2016 presidential elections because of prior interpretations of the law by the WEC’s predecessor agencies.
WEC administrator Meagan Wolfe said the agency discovered the discrepancy with state law in reviewing election dates for the 7th Congressional District primary, scheduled for next week.