MADISON – As Republicans pursue a longshot chance of overturning the presidential results in Wisconsin, they’re focused on absentee voters’ addresses, the state’s residency requirement and a flash drive that was briefly left in a counting machine.
With a lead of more than 20,000 votes by President-elect Joe Biden, Republicans would need to find something momentous to shift the state’s results to President Donald Trump.
And in the unlikely scenario that Biden loses Wisconsin’s 10 electoral votes, he could still claim the presidency because of his victories in other states.
Wisconsin Republicans are scrambling to find issues they can raise in the recount Trump has promised to pursue. A recount four years ago resulted in a net change of just 131 votes — nowhere near the number Trump would need to change the results this time.
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Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, on Friday directed a committee to review the election results, saying he wanted it to determine whether there were any irregularities.
Rep. Joe Sanfelippo, R-New Berlin, on Monday raised the prospect of having the state’s electoral votes go to Trump instead of Biden, depending on how the investigation goes.
“If an investigation shows these actions affected the outcome of the election, we need to either declare this past election null and void and hold a new election or require our Electoral College Delegates to correct the injustice with their votes,” he said in a statement.
Changing how the presidential electors vote would be exceedingly difficult.
State law directs the state’s bipartisan Elections Commission to determine whether the Democratic or Republican slate of electors get to cast Wisconsin’s electoral votes. Democratic Gov. Tony Evers is responsible for signing off on that determination, and the law does not give legislators a role in the process.
Counties are now canvassing the vote to determine their official results. The last of them is expected to finalize its votes on Nov. 17. Trump would have until the next day to seek a recount.
If the margin of about 0.6 percentage points holds, Trump would be granted a recount, but his campaign would have to pay in advance to cover the cost of it. A statewide recount would cost millions of dollars, but Trump could try to limit the costs by conducting a recount only in certain places, such as Milwaukee County.
Trump on Monday tweeted that a Wisconsin recount “will happen soon.” He tagged former chief of staff Reince Priebus and former U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy in the tweet, raising the prospect the two lawyers from Wisconsin could assist with the recount.
Addresses on envelopes
Republicans have raised concerns about instances in which clerks filled in the addresses of witnesses on absentee ballot envelopes.
Absentee voters in Wisconsin place their ballots in envelopes that they must sign before returning them to local election officials. They must also have a witness sign the envelope and provide his or her address.
If the voter’s signature, the witness’ signature or the witness’ address is missing, the vote won’t count.
Before the election, clerks contacted voters if they identified problems with the envelopes so they could fix them.
The state Elections Commission told clerks they could add the witness’ address if they were able to determine what it was. They were able to find this information in many cases by looking at voter registration records, talking to the voter or talking to the witness.
Former state Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman and some Republicans contend the witness — not the clerk — is the one who is supposed to fill out the address information.
“The one meaningful path that the president would have in Wisconsin would be to challenge the I believe illegal clerks writing in the addresses for the absentee voters’ witnesses,” Gableman said in an interview.
State law does not explicitly say who must provide the address information. And Republicans on the commission have backed the policy allowing clerks to fill it out.
The issue first arose in 2016. That year, Republicans on the commission put forward the guidance to allow clerks to fill in the missing information. The guidance was approved unanimously after the commission consulted with the office of then-Attorney General Brad Schimel, a Republican.
In Milwaukee, election officials use red ink when they fill in witness information. Clerks in other areas use different methods to show when they filled in information, such as by adding their initials.
State law requires voters to reside at their address for at least 28 days before they can vote in an election. That law was challenged in court years ago, and a federal judge in 2016 struck it down and put in place the previous law, which required voters to live at their address for 10 days before an election.
By then, many clerks had already printed absentee envelopes that stated voters had to live at their address for 10 days, rather than 28 days.
The commission told clerks they could use those envelopes but should cross out the reference to 10 days and write in the correct information. On Election Day in Milwaukee, Republican observers questioned the practice, but election officials determined it was appropriate.
Reid Magney, a spokesman for the state Elections Commission, said ballots in envelopes with incorrect information about the residency requirement should be counted. The only time one could be thrown out is if a voter was found to have lived at his or her address for less than 28 days, he said.
‘Democracy in the Park’
Republicans have also called into doubt “Democracy in the Park” events Madison held this fall. Under that program, poll workers were stationed in more than 200 locations on Saturdays so voters could hand in absentee ballots they had received by mail.
Republicans argued it amounted to allowing in-person early voting before the state’s two-week early-voting period began. Attorneys for the city disputed that, saying they were simply giving absentee voters another way to return their ballots.
Republicans threatened to sue over the events but so far have not.
A group of voters who supported the events sued Madison election officials in hopes of getting a court order that said the plan was acceptable. But Dane County Circuit Judge Mario White dismissed the case because the voters and election officials agreed on the issue, leaving him nothing to weigh in on.
Some Republicans have groused about the state Elections Commission declining to immediately remove more than 100,000 people from the voter rolls who are believed to have moved. Republicans and Democrats on the commission put off taking the voters off the rolls right away because some of its data is incorrect and some of the voters have not actually moved.
A group of voters sued the state over the issue with the help of the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty. They won the case before a trial judge, but an appeals court unanimously ruled in February that the voters should stay on the rolls.
The state Supreme Court is now reviewing the case and expected to rule in the coming months.
Flash drive left in a counting machine
Claire Woodall-Vogg, the director of the Milwaukee Election Commission, delivered 12 flash drives containing the tallies for absentee votes to the Milwaukee County clerk’s office shortly after 3 a.m. on Wednesday.
When she got there, she discovered she had left one of the flash drives in a vote-counting machine where absentee ballots are processed, according to a letter she sent to the state Elections Commission on Monday.
The flash drive was never left unattended by other staff members, and one of them provided it to a police officer so it could be taken to the county clerk’s office, according to Woodall-Vogg.
“This is what happens when the Legislature requires you to stay up 24 hours” to conduct an election and count results, Woodall-Vogg said.
Timestamps confirm that the flash drive was not altered and the Milwaukee County district attorney’s office reviewed the incident to document the chain of custody, Woodall-Vogg said.
Bill Glauber and Bruce Vielmetti of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.
Contact Patrick Marley at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @patrickdmarley.