Hundreds of Milwaukee votes invalidated in absentee confusion
Judge lifted witness signature requirement, but judge restored it next day
MADISON, Wis. (WKBT) — The vote total in Wisconsin’s primary election was hundreds of votes in the hole even before polls were to close at 8 p.m. Tuesday after nearly 800 absentee ballots in Milwaukee were invalidated.
The ballots were nixed because they didn’t have witness signatures — just one of the results of confusion amid a series of lawsuits that continued to swirl even Monday night.
On Thursday, U.S District Judge William Conley lifted the requirement that absentee ballots have witness signatures. He did so to adhere to 6-foot social distancing mandates intended to slow the coronavirus.
The judge theorized that many people living alone might not have been able to get witnesses.
A federal appellate court reinstated the requirement the next day. As a result, state election officials declared that absentee ballots filed without witness signatures are invalid.
As of Tuesday afternoon, the city of Milwaukee had received about 750 absentee ballots that didn’t have witness signatures, said Neil Albrecht, executive director of the Milwaukee Election Commission. Those votes didn’t count, he said.
Election officials in other cities hadn’t weighed in on the issue by Tuesday evening, but observers suggested that the nixed votes set the stage for claims that the election is illegal.
In spite of Gov. Tony Evers’ Safer at Home order that people should stay home unless they have essential jobs, thousands went out to vote. When people venture out, they are supposed to maintain a 6-foot social distance to decrease thwart the spread of COVID-19, a difficult task in voting lines.
In many cities, hours-long waits to vote resulted in part because polling places had to be reduced after regular poll workers quit out of fear of COVID -19.
For example, Milwaukee, a city of more than 600,000, had a mere five polling places, compared with the usual 180. Waukesha, with a population of nearly 75,000, had just one polling place. National Guard members filled in some precincts and districts.
The election was on-again, off-again as Republicans and Democrats jousted legally. Evers issued an executive order Monday afternoon to postpone the election until June. Just a few hours later, ruling on a Republican appeal, the state Supreme Court said he didn’t have the authority to do so unilaterally.
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett denounced the Republican-controlled Legislature for not allowing postponement, saying it forced tens of thousands of people to choose between voting and risking infection at the polls.
The Democratic primary between former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Senator Bernie Sanders was just one decision voters were making.
Also at stake were a contentious battle for the state Supreme Court between incumbent Daniel Kelly, whom President Donald Trump endorsed, and Dane County Circuit Court Judge Jill Karofsky. If Kelly wins, the court’s conservative majority will remain at 5-2. If Karofsky is victorious, it narrows to 4-3.
Other contests across the state include city and county races, as well as constitutional amendment to give crime victims more rights.
The state’s elections commission has ordered municipal clerks not to release results until April 13, in compliance with a federal court ruling.
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