MADISON, Wis. -- A Wisconsin judge on Wednesday ruled that state law does not allow election clerks to fill in missing information on witness certification envelopes that contain absentee ballots, delivering a victory to Republicans nine weeks before the election in the battleground state.
The lawsuit, backed by the GOP-controlled Legislature, is the latest move by Republicans to tighten restrictions on absentee voting in the swing state where Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and Republican Sen. Ron Johnson are on the ballot in November.
Waukesha County Circuit Judge Michael Aprahamian on Wednesday granted GOP motions to immediately block the practice, known as ballot curing. The case is expected to ultimately go to the conservative-controlled Wisconsin Supreme Court, which in July ruled that absentee ballot drop boxes located outside of clerk offices are illegal.
Local election officials do not have the authority under the law to modify absentee ballot certificates, nor does the state elections commission have the right to order that they take that action, the judge said. He accused the elections commission of "stubborn and unjustified adherence to its guidance" that was contrary to state law.
An attorney for Democrats said he planned to file a motion to stay the ruling pending appeal. A hearing was set for Tuesday.
The judge agreed with Republicans that 2016 Wisconsin Elections Commission guidance issued to the state's 1,800-plus local election clerks saying that they can cure ballot certificates without contacting the voter is illegal. The clerks address problems on the witness certificate, which doubles as an envelope, and not the ballot itself. Republicans contested the practice after Donald Trump's narrow loss in 2020, when nearly 1.4 million voters cast absentee ballots and covid-19 vaccines weren't available yet.
"This isn't a case about counting votes," said George Burnett, attorney for the Republican Party of Waukesha County, which brought the lawsuit. "This is a case about stopping the issuance of guidance that violates Wisconsin law."
The Waukesha County Democratic Party, which is defending the practice, argues that Republicans are trying to create confusion and uncertainty just weeks before early voting begins. All absentee ballots in Wisconsin must be sent to voters by Sept. 22. The guidance that permits curing has been in effect for more than 20 statewide elections, and Democrats argue it is lawful and necessary to comply with the federal Civil Rights Act.
When Trump raised the issue after he narrowly lost the 2020 election, the Wisconsin Supreme Court did not directly address it in upholding his loss, but four of the seven justices suggested then that the guidance allowing clerks to cure absentee ballot certificates was reasonable.
The lawsuit was filed by the Republican Party of Waukesha County and three voters, and the Republican-led Legislature intervened. The Waukesha County Democratic Party and the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin joined the commission in defending the guidance.