Dr. Shandowlyon Hendricks-Williams, director of Gov. Tony Evers' Milwaukee office, is a candidate for state superintendent. (Image via Dr. Hendricks for Education)
Dr. Shandowlyon Hendricks-Williams, director of Gov. Tony Evers' Milwaukee office, is a candidate for state superintendent. (Image via Dr. Hendricks for Education)

Wisconsin law prohibits “abbreviations or titles” on nomination papers, but Elections Commission staff erroneously told the candidate her papers were legal.

A state superintendent candidate almost got kicked off the ballot for the Feb. 16 primary election because she included her formal title of “Dr.” on her nomination-paper header. 

The Wisconsin Elections Commission on Tuesday deadlocked 3-3 on a challenge to block Dr. Shandowlyon Hendricks-Williams from the primary ballot. The deadlock vote effectively defeated a challenge filed by Deborah Kerr, one of Henricks-Williams’ six opponents

Kerr objected to Hendricks-Williams’ use of her formal title on her papers because state law prohibits “abbreviations or titles” at the top of candidates’ nomination papers.

If a majority of the commission had voted to accept the challenge, all of Hendricks-Williams more than 2,000 signatures would have been invalidated. Elections Commission staff recommended keeping Hendricks-Williams off the ballot, saying it was necessary because her filings violated state elections law.

“Statute specifically prohibits this error,” said Jim Witecha, an attorney for the Elections Commission. “It’s kind of a
 non-correctable error, if you will.”

Republican commissioners Dean Knudson and Marge Bostelmann, and Democratic commissioner Julie Glancey, took the staff recommendation and voted to block Hendricks-Williams from the ballot on the grounds that letting her on would set a bad precedent for future candidates.

“We will be setting a precedent,” Knudson warned commissioners who voted against the challenge. “We will be making a mockery of Wisconsin election law if you take this course.”

But Democrats Ann Jacobs, Mark Thomsen, and Republican Bob Spindell voted against sustaining the challenge. 

Their votes came partially out of sympathy for Hendricks-Williams, because she had submitted her papers for review ahead of time, and commission staff erroneously told her campaign that the papers jelled with state law.

“I think we have to be honest with candidates when we mess up and recognize that we owe them, in some regards, that duty of good faith and fair dealing,” said Jacobs, the commission chairwoman. “And we failed here. We just did.”

Richard Rydecki, deputy commissioner for the Elections Commission, admitted “we should have caught this on review.”

Hendricks-Williams’ campaign also targeted the staff error in her defense. 

”You know, respectfully, I’m not sure there would be a point of having commission review if candidates couldn’t rely on it being okay,” said Stacie Rosenzweig, an attorney for Hendricks-Williams.

The top two candidates in the Feb. 16 primary will advance to the spring election on April 6.