absentee ballot mailings
Absentee ballot enclosed in the envelope. (Photo provided)

“People have to be careful,” vs. “That’s just wrong.”

The bipartisan Wisconsin Elections Commission deadlocked Wednesday on whether municipal election clerks should continue to be able to fill in missing information on envelopes containing absentee ballots.

Republicans have been targeting guidance issued by the commission since President Joe Biden’s defeat of Donald Trump in 2020 by just under 21,000 votes. There have been calls from Republican lawmakers, candidates for governor and election investigator Michael Gableman to dissolve the commission, a move opposed by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and GOP Assembly Speaker Robin Vos.

Trump on Tuesday endorsed Gableman’s recommendation for dissolving the commission.

One of the biggest targets of Republicans is guidance the commission first issued in 2016 that allows election clerks to correct witness address omissions and mistakes on absentee ballot envelopes without contacting the witness or the voter.

The commission in January agreed on a 4-2 vote to adopt a temporary rule, good for six months, that followed that existing guidance. The commission on Wednesday deadlocked on whether to make that rule permanent.

All three Democrats on the commission voted in support, while the three Republicans voted against. They also deadlocked in pursuing a rule that would have required clerks to contact voters before filling in missing information. All Republicans voted in support, while Democrats were against it.

Democratic commissioners argued that allowing clerks to fill in missing information would ensure that people’s ballots are not discarded for minor errors. But Republicans said voting absentee is a privilege, not a right, and comes with risks.

Democratic Commissioner Julie Glancey said voters who are homebound due to disability or age would be put at a greater disadvantage for having their ballots not counted.

“That’s just wrong,” she said.

Republican Commissioner Marge Bostelmann said voters should be notified first and that should ensure they don’t repeat the error.

“I don’t think it’s that hard,” she said of correctly filling out the ballot certificate envelope, which requires the signature and address of a witness.

Democratic Commissioner Mark Thomsen accused the commission of “punting” the issue when it instead should be making it as easy as possible for people to vote.

Republican Commissioner Bob Spindell said it made sense to have the commission wait for further guidance from the Legislature.

“People have to be careful,” he said of voting absentee. “I don’t believe that people aren’t capable of following directions.”

The nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau last year reviewed 14,710 absentee ballot certificates in 29 municipalities and found that 1,022 certificates (6.9%) were missing parts of witness addresses, 15 (0.1%) did not have any witness address at all, eight (less than 0.1%) did not have a witness signature, and three (less than 0.1%) did not have a voter signature.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.