The state’s two most powerful Republican lawmakers sent a cease-and-desist letter to the Madison City Clerk’s Office on Friday ahead of a ballot collection event to be held in city parks Saturday, calling the effort “illegal” and warning the ballots would be challenged in court and potentially invalidated.
“The threat that this procedure poses to ballot integrity is manifestly obvious,” Misha Tseytlin, former state solicitor general, wrote on behalf of Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester.
City Clerk Maribeth Witzel-Behl defended the program Friday, disputing conservative criticism that the event constitutes either illegal ballot harvesting or illegal early voting, which otherwise can’t start until about two weeks before the Nov. 3 election. The cease-and-desist letter does not affect the event and it will continue as planned, she said.
She noted the program involves city poll workers, who are deputized to receive ballots. Ballot harvesting involves the illegal collection of ballots by non-poll workers to be delivered to election officials or ballot boxes. The event also does not amount to early voting because ballots will not be provided to voters who come out. The poll workers will be receiving ballots from those who requested and received absentee ballots.
Conservative lawyer Rick Esenberg, whose law firm has taken up several GOP-supported causes, said in an interview Friday he didn’t plan on challenging the event in court unless it involved non-poll workers or involved distributing ballots.
The Wisconsin Elections Commission received a number of calls and emails conveying concern, but as of Friday evening the WEC had not received a formal complaint about the event, spokesman Reid Magney said.
Nonetheless, Vos and Fitzgerald questioned its legality and security.
“Poll workers will attempt to collect absentee ballots at over 200 unsecured, outdoor locations, and only deliver these ballots to the City Clerk’s Office at the end of the six-hour campaign,” Tseytlin, of the law firm Troutman Pepper Hamilton Sanders, wrote in the letter to Witzel-Behl. “There could be no justification for this ad hoc, unsecure, and unlawful approach that your campaign appears to be creating.”
The statutes cited in the cease-and-desist letter state the ballots are to be returned to the clerk’s office, said Michael Haas, Madison city attorney and former staff council for the Wisconsin Elections Commission.
“In this case they’re to be dropped off to sworn election officials,” he said.
Republican Party officials and election observers were invited to participate in the event to make sure proper procedures are followed, as long as they follow predetermined guidelines such as maintaining 6 feet of distance from voters as they interact with poll workers.
“It’s hard to see this as anything but an attempt to discourage people from participating in the election,” Haas said.
Lester Pines, senior partner at the Madison law firm Pines Bach, which has worked on several liberal-supported issues, said he is ready for a court battle should the ballots that are returned during the event be challenged.
“We’re ready to get involved on behalf of groups that do not want voting disrupted,” he said. “This is a part of a national program of voter suppression that Republicans are putting into place. This is not an isolated thing.”
The event — to be held in every community park, neighborhood park and mini park across Madison this Saturday and next — was meant to provide voters with access to registration, answers to questions about the voting process and a secure method for voters to deliver their completed absentee ballot. Poll workers can also act as a witness for absentee voters if needed.
The event is scheduled to run from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Oct. 3, and once it concludes, envelopes containing completed absentee ballots will be secured with tamper-evident seals. Poll workers will document both the number of seals and the number of ballots, and take them to the City Clerk’s Office. There, both the seal number and the ballot number will be verified by officials. The clerk’s office will scan the barcode of each envelope by the next day so that voters will be able to check the status of their ballot by the following Monday on MyVote.wi.gov.
The idea came to Witzel-Behl as she walked her dog across the street from her neighborhood park, after voters called the clerk’s office and asked to drop off their ballots at a secure location close to their homes, instead of sending them through the mail.
The city of Madison purchased 14 ballot drop-off boxes before the August primaries, with grant money from the Center for Tech and Civic Life, but due to high demand across the country, they aren’t scheduled to be delivered until the beginning of October. The drop boxes offer residents a secure alternative to sending their ballot through the mail and will be installed at accessible points around the city but, Witzel-Behl noted, they won’t arrive in time for a number of voters who already received and are anxious to return their ballots.
Conservative commentators raised alarm about radio ads promoting the event sponsored by former Vice President Joe Biden’s presidential campaign, claiming it was a sign of coordination. Witzel-Behl said the event is nonpartisan, entirely paid for by the City Clerk’s office and not done in coordination with any campaign.