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Wisconsin Court Sets Up Possible Delay In Absentee Mailing

Michelle Maternowski
The Wisconsin Supreme Court on Thursday ordered that no absentee ballots be mailed until it gives the go-ahead or makes any future ruling about who should be on the ballot.

Updated at 1:41 p.m. CT

The conservative-controlled Wisconsin Supreme Court on Thursday ordered that no absentee ballots be mailed until it gives the go-ahead or makes any future ruling about who should be on the ballot in the critical battleground state.

The order injects a measure of confusion into the voting process in Wisconsin a week before a state's deadline for absentee ballots to be mailed and less than two months before the Nov. 3 presidential election. Polls show a tight race in the state between President Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden.

The ruling came in a lawsuit filed by Green Party presidential candidate Howie Hawkins. He asked the state's highest court to take up his challenge of a Wisconsin Elections Commission decision keeping him off the ballot.

Rapper Kanye West, in a separate case, is also trying to get on the ballot after the commission rejected him. A Brown County judge said he hoped to rule within days on West's lawsuit, which could cause further delays in the mailing of ballots.

Whether West and Hawkins are allowed on the ballot could have a significant impact in razor-close Wisconsin. The Green Party’s 2016 presidential candidate, Jill Stein, won 31,006 votes in the state, which was more than Trump’s 22,177-vote margin of victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton in Wisconsin.

The state Supreme Court, in a 4-3 decision split along ideological lines, said no ballots can be sent immediately. Municipal election clerks face a Sept. 17 deadline to mail absentee ballots to anyone who had requested one. As of Thursday, nearly 1 million absentee ballots had been requested.

Wisconsin Elections Commissioner Meagan Wolfe said Thursday just prior to the court’s order that some clerks may have already mailed ballots without West's and Hawkins’ names on them. If West or Hawkins ends up getting on the ballot, the clerks would likely send voters a new ballot, Wolfe said. Voters would also likely receive instructions telling them that their first ballot would still count unless they mailed in the second one, she said.

That scenario is “incredibly problematic,” Wolfe said.

The state Supreme Court asked the elections commission to provide it by 5 p.m. Thursday with detailed information about who had already been sent a ballot as well as when and who had requested absentee ballots. Wolfe said she did not know how many ballots had already been sent.

The court's three liberal justices dissented, saying “given the breadth of the information requested and the minimal time allotted to obtain it [the court] is asking the impossible of our approximately 1,850 municipal clerks throughout the state."

While Sept. 17 is the deadline for clerks to mail absentee ballots to those who already have a request on file, anyone who makes a request later will still be mailed a ballot. Oct. 29 is the deadline for most voters to request a ballot by mail. Returned ballots must be received by the time polls close at 8 p.m. on Election Day.

But election officials, as well as the presidential candidates and political parties, have been urging voters to return their ballots as soon as possible because of concerns with slower mail delivery and the expected unprecedented number of absentee ballots. State elections officials have estimated that more than 2 million of the state's roughly 3 million eligible voters will cast absentee ballots, largely due to concerns about the coronavirus pandemic.

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to show that Wolfe said the first ballot would count unless voters returned the second ballot. Associated Press writer Todd Richmond contributed to this report. 

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