Kanye West

Kanye West performs at the 2016 The Meadows Music and Arts Festivals at Citi Field on Sunday, Oct. 2, 2016, in Flushing, New York. (Photo by Scott Roth/Invision/AP)

Debating the meaning of time itself, state elections officials voted Thursday to bar rapper Kanye West from Wisconsin's 2020 presidential ballot after staff found his campaign filed paperwork late. 

The 5-1 vote came after the members of the Wisconsin Elections Commission grilled a staffer about the accuracy of his wristwatch and his knowledge of the length of time it takes to ride the building's elevator from the ground floor to the third floor as they sought to determine whether West's nomination papers were turned in before or after the statutory deadline. 

While West's lawyer had argued that the campaign had until one minute after the 5 p.m. on Aug. 4 to turn in the rapper's nomination papers, staff this week found even that under that interpretation — which they noted wasn't supported by state language — the campaign was late. 

Following a lengthy discussion that included two sworn testimonies from staff members who were working at the WEC office at 212 E. Washington Ave. when West's papers were turned in, commissioners largely agreed that West should not be granted ballot access. 

Likening the commission to a football "line judge determining if someone stepped out of bounds or stepped over the goal line," commissioner Dean Knudson, a Republican appointee, said it didn't appear the paperwork was filed in a timely manner.

"This is one of the closet call cases I’ve seen, but consistency requires me to treat all candidates the same, regardless of their party, regardless of their color or any other characteristic of the candidate," he said.

But fellow Republican appointee Bob Spindell, the sole vote in favor of granting West ballot access, argued that the COVID-19 pandemic complicated the process of turning in signatures but, regardless, the documents were in the WEC building, thus in possession of WEC staff, by the deadline. 

Spindell, WisPolitics.com noted, wasn't as sympathetic to state candidates at a spring WEC meeting, when he said they "just have to understand that one way or another, it's gotta be in by 5 o'clock" and that if it happened "one minute after five … too bad." 

He also suggested that Democrats were seeking to get West off the ballots to suppress "the Black vote."  

"Mr. West is an African-American candidate and I think we should do all we can after the terrible treatment that the Black population in Milwaukee received during the April election [when many of the city's polling places were closed] that we give them a choice," he said. "I don’t think it’s up to us to say, 'You cannot have a choice in terms of what candidate you would like to vote for.'"

West was aided by Republicans in his attempt to get on the ballot as a member of the BDY Birthday Party. President Donald Trump narrowly won the state's 10 electoral votes in 2016. Independent candidates needed to file at least 2,000 valid signatures to the commission, as well as a declaration of candidacy, by the Aug. 4 deadline in order to appear on statewide ballots come fall. 

[Kanye West files to run as independent presidential candidate in Wisconsin]

The campaign attorney who filed West's paperwork, Lane Ruhland, is with the Husch Blackwell firm and previously served as legal counsel for the Wisconsin Republican Party and worked for former Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel. 

Ruhland entered the WEC building around 14 seconds after 5 p.m., a few minutes after she arrived outside the locked entrance to the building and called staff to let her in. Staff noted she then had to walk down the first floor hallway, access the elevator, ride it to the third floor and present the papers to the front desk, which they argued is "virtually impossible" to do in the 46 seconds needed to hit 5:01, which the West campaign argued was the actual deadline. 

While West's campaign alleged Ruhland and a fellow campaign official were "immediately delayed by an overly aggressive media as well as a Democratic operative" when entering the building, commission staff countered that "clear and convincing evidence establishes (they) were already late."  

Further, staff in their prepared recommendations said Ruhland then spent "several minutes" numbering the documents as required, "which did not allow for a transfer of the papers after they reached the Commission's office." 

Two WEC staff members who worked with the West campaign on Aug. 4 addressed the commissioners in an unconventional move Thursday, as members sought to pinpoint exactly who had possession of the nomination papers when. 

Commissioners also grilled the Spring Green lawyer representing West's campaign, Michael Curran, while they largely refrained from directing any questions or comments to Jeff Mandell, the Madison attorney for the challengers.

Curran repeatedly argued that because nomination papers can't be accepted after the deadline by WEC staff, the fact that they were accepted at all means they are valid — a point WEC head Meagan Wolfe disputed.

"Staff is instructed that they are not the decision-makers in these instances," she said. "If there are questions of timeliness, if there are questions of validity, the staff's role is to make recommendations, relay information to the commission as the ultimate decision-makers." 

Apart from Ruhland, several of West's 10 electors, who pledge to vote for a candidate in the Electoral College if he wins Wisconsin, are supporters of Trump or lower-level Republican Party activists, according to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel review of their social media accounts.  

In other states, at least two individuals associated with West’s campaign have ties to the Republican Party, media reports showed. That includes one of West’s electors in Vermont, who is also a delegate to the Republican National Convention, and a prominent GOP operative who listed himself as the West campaign’s point of contact in an Arkansas filing.

While the commission's Thursday decision could face a legal challenge, West also has the ability to officially register as a write-in candidate. Those individuals must file a list of presidential electors — one from each of the eight congressional districts and two from the state broadly — and a declaration of candidacy by Oct. 20 at 4:30 p.m., according to WEC

Later in the meeting, commissioners repeatedly split 3-3 along party lines over whether to allow the Green Party candidates, a ticket led by Howie Hawkins, on the November ballot. 

The move denied ballot access for the party, though the decision could be challenged in court. 

The crux of the issue was over some of the papers allegedly listing the wrong address for vice presidential contender Angela Walker. The campaign didn't respond to the challenge against those documents. While the party had notified staff last month that she had moved, staff said the campaign didn't file an amended declaration of candidacy or take other steps as staff had recommended. 

After more than two hours of discussion, commissioners agreed 6-0 to sign off on a motion that in part stated the body had deadlocked over the course of the meeting. The language split the signatures into two categories (1,789 that members had approved and the remaining 1,834 signatures they rejected because the addresses didn't match) and summarized the body's findings at that point, setting up a record of action that could be revisited in a legal challenge. 

The body also granted ballot access to Libertarian Party presidential contender Jo Jorgensen and running mate Jeremy Cohen, as well as American Solidarity Party candidate Brian Carroll and VP Amar Patel. 

In 2016, Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson received 106,674 votes, or 3.58%, while Green Party candidate Jill Stein got 31,072 votes, or 1.04%, according to WEC data. Trump carried the state by 22,748 more votes than Democrat Hillary Clinton.

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