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The Wisconsin Elections Commission on Wednesday grappled with how to respond to recent incidents of publicized voter fraud, what to tell local clerks about how people with disabilities can vote, and whether to rescind guidance from 2016 that allows clerks to fill in missing information on absentee envelopes.

The Wisconsin Elections Commission on Wednesday grappled with how to respond to recent incidents of publicized voter fraud, what to tell local clerks about how people with disabilities can vote, and whether to rescind guidance from 2016 that allows clerks to fill in missing information on absentee envelopes.

It was the commission’s second special meeting in as many weeks, and it came less than a week before the Aug. 9 primary election. 

Voter fraud

The commission deadlocked along party lines on a proposal from its Republican members to look into requiring additional information from voters who request absentee ballots online. 

The proposal came in response to an activist who openly admitted last week that he had used the state’s “MyVote Wisconsin” website to have ballots for several other people, including Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Democratic Racine Mayor Cory Mason, sent to his house.

Harry Wait, president of the Racine-based group H.O.T. (Honest, Open and Transparent) Government, said in a letter posted to the H.O.T. Rumble page that he’s “ready to be charged” for “exposing these voting vulnerabilities.”

The MyVote website allows voters to request an absentee ballot by supplying their name and date of birth. A photo ID is required unless the voter has already uploaded one to the site, or has classified themselves as indefinitely confined. 

Impersonating a registered elector or otherwise fraudulently obtaining registration or election materials subjects an offender to a felony conviction yielding thousands of dollars in fines and/or several years in prison.

Republican members of the commission suggested the site should require additional verifying information for ballot requests, such as the last four digits of a person’s Social Security number. 

“We need more authentication, we need a stronger way to do this, otherwise I don’t believe we’re going to have a lot of the confidence of the voters of Wisconsin that our system is safe and secure,” said Republican commissioner Robert Spindell. 

Democrats on the commission countered that the best way to prevent further fraud is to prosecute the people who have openly committed it. They argued it would be a waste of time to ask WEC staff to work on any potential changes during election season when any significant adjustments would require legislative approval.

“The chutzpah of complaining about a lack of faith in our elections when you’re running around the state holding town halls declaring that the 2020 election was rigged is astonishing,” said Democratic commissioner Ann Jacobs, referring to Spindell, who has given presentations throughout the state promoting allegations that the election was “rigged” but “legal.”

Several recounts, lawsuits and a nonpartisan audit have confirmed that Democratic President Joe Biden won the state in 2020 by about 20,000 votes and that there was no widespread fraud in Wisconsin.

The commission did approve a proposal to expedite its review of any complaints it receives regarding the fraud committed by Wait and any associated others. That measure passed 5-1, with Spindell objecting.

It also voted unanimously to cooperate with a state Department of Justice investigation launched last week into the fraudulent activities Wait documented.

Last week, the commission voted to notify voters who have, since April, requested an absentee ballot with a separate mailing address that they could have been subjected to fraud. WEC administrator Meagan Wolfe said Wednesday that those postcards will be sent to about 5,000 voters by Thursday.

Voters with disabilities

Although the entire commission agreed ensuring voters with disabilities are able to cast their ballots is a priority, the body struggled to reach consensus on how to do that in the wake of a recent state Supreme Court ruling.

The court ruled last month that unstaffed absentee ballot drop boxes are illegal. As a part of that lawsuit, the court heard arguments about who is allowed to place completed absentee ballots in the mail. 

In its 4-3 ruling, the court declined to decide “whether the law permits a voter’s agent to place an absentee ballot in the mail on the voter’s behalf.”

Following that ruling, Wolfe advised voters to personally mail completed absentee ballots back to their local election clerks — but added that they should prioritize guidance from local election officials about how to return ballots.

Four Wisconsin voters with disabilities filed a federal lawsuit last week seeking assurance that they will be able to receive the help they need in order to cast their ballots, following the court’s ruling in Teigen v. WEC.

The lawsuit seeks relief against the state’s administration of elections “in any manner that does not permit disabled voters to receive third-party assistance in returning properly marked absentee ballots.” The complaint notes that some voters with disabilities are physically incapable of voting in person on Election Day, and are only able to vote absentee with ballot-return assistance (having another person return their absentee ballot in person or place it in the mail).

“We're in a pickle because we have a Wisconsin Supreme Court that has made a determination stating, from our laws, that only the elector may return the ballot or mail the ballot. However, there is a federal law that states that voters can have assistance,” said Republican commissioner Marge Bostelmann.

Ultimately, the commission voted to send a communication — but not official guidance — to clerks referencing the federal statutes that enshrine protections for voters with disabilities, including allowing them to receive assistance from a third party.

Absentee ‘curing’

The commission also deadlocked on a motion to rescind guidance issued in 2016 that allows clerks to complete missing information without contacting an absentee voter “if clerks are reasonably able to discern any missing information from outside sources” — for example, if the clerk knows the voter and their address personally, or the clerk is able to verify the witness’s address on their own.

Republican lawmakers voted last month to suspend an emergency rule regulating Wisconsin election clerks’ efforts to address missing information on absentee ballot envelopes, but the commission’s previous guidance has remained in place. Wednesday’s 3-3 vote means that will continue to be the case.

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