Conservatives seek ban on ballot harvesting ahead of Wisconsin elections

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MADISON – Conservatives asked Wisconsin election officials Monday to adopt new rules over collecting absentee ballots — a potential preview of another election lawsuit in one of the country’s most crucial swing states.

A group of voters represented by the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty filed a petition with the state Elections Commission to ban individuals or groups from gathering absentee ballots from voters and delivering them to clerks, a practice known as ballot harvesting.

Ballot harvesting drew headlines most recently when a consultant for a Republican congressional candidate in North Carolina was charged with election fraud over claims he oversaw a team that illegally gathered ballots and sometimes filled them out. Election officials in North Carolina declined to certify the results of the election and ordered a new vote. 

The request filed Monday contends ballot harvesting is illegal in Wisconsin but says explicit rules on the issue are necessary to make that point clear. It wants the bipartisan commission to adopt such rules for this fall’s elections. 

“We don’t want activists in the business of controlling which ballots get returned and how they get returned,” WILL’s president, Rick Esenberg, said in an interview. 

But Jeffrey Mandell, a Madison attorney who represents Disability Rights Wisconsin and others challenging the state’s election laws, said the commission should be careful about any rules it writes. Especially during the coronavirus outbreak, voters should be able to deliver absentee ballots for a spouse or neighbor, he said.

“It’s signed, sealed and witnessed. I think it’s crazy to think that’s unlawful,” he said of not being able to deliver ballots for spouses and neighbors. 

The request for rules comes as voters are quickly shifting to voting by mail because of the coronavirus pandemic. Nearly 1 million people voted by mail in the April election for state Supreme Court, far surpassing the previous record. 

The Elections Commission plans to send absentee ballot request forms to most registered voters for the presidential election. The commissioners will meet Wednesday to decide what wording to use in a letter that will accompany those forms. 

Whether the commission could agree on rules over ballot harvesting remains to be seen. The commission consists of three Democrats and three Republicans and often breaks down on party lines.

The head of the commission, Meagan Wolfe, noted in a memo last year that the state does not explicitly ban ballot harvesting. Legislation didn’t make it through the Legislature this year that would have made it a felony to fail to deliver ballots that had been collected from voters.

Any decision — or lack of a decision — on new rules could lead to a lawsuit, Esenberg told WISN (1130-AM) host Jay Weber. If the commission adopts a ban on ballot harvesting, groups that want to engage in the practice could sue, he said. And if the commission doesn’t go along with WILL, he said it’s possible his group would bring a lawsuit. 

WILL filed its request on behalf of five voters, including Ardis Cerny, who has long advocated for tightening election rules, and Chris Kliesmet, who helped foster recalls over Milwaukee County’s pension scandal. 

WILL represents a different set of people in a lawsuit over whether more than 100,000 people should be removed from the voter rolls because they are believed to have moved. An appeals court determined the voters should not be taken off the rolls and the case is now before the state Supreme Court

Several other election lawsuits are playing out in federal court.

Those lawsuits, brought by Democrats and their allies, seek to loosen voting rules in numerous ways because of the coronavirus pandemic. They seek to build on rulings from this spring that extended deadlines for registering to vote and returning absentee ballots for the April election.

On Monday, the Republican National Committee, state Republican Party and GOP-led Legislature sought to intervene in the most recent of those lawsuits, as they did in the lawsuits that were brought before the April election.

Contact Patrick Marley at patrick.marley@jrn.com. Follow him on Twitter at @patrickdmarley.

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