Wisconsin judge won’t order sequestration of mail-in ballots

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A Wisconsin judge Monday, less than 14 hours before polls open, refused to order that military mail-in ballots be withdrawn and placed in receivership until he can be verified that they were cast legally, saying it would be a “drastic remedy” that could disenfranchise voters.

The Republican chairman of the Wisconsin Assembly Elections Committee, along with a group of veterans and other voters sued Friday, seeking a court order to sequester the ballots.

Waukesha County Circuit Judge Michael Maxwell denied that request for a temporary restraining order in a decision from the bench following a two-hour hearing Monday afternoon.

“It just seems like a drastic remedy,” he said of the ballot sequestration.

The judge also denied a request by state Rep. Janel Brandtjen, who was represented by attorneys from the conservative firm Thomas More, to order the election commission to withdraw its advice to clerks regarding mail-in ballots for members of the army. Brandtjen pushed conspiracy theories about the 2020 election.

The judge said the case raised questions about whether Wisconsin’s bipartisan Election Commission was properly informing the state’s more than 1,800 poll clerks of their duty to maintain a list of eligible military voters.

The lawsuit comes after a senior Milwaukee County election official was accused of fraudulently requesting three military ballots using false names and sending them to Brandtjen in order to expose vulnerabilities in Wisconsin’s elections. . Kimberly Zapata, deputy director of the Milwaukee Elections Commission, was fired last week and now faces charges of criminal misconduct in the line of duty and three counts of voter fraud.

Michael Gableman, a former Wisconsin Supreme Court justice who was hired by Republicans to investigate the 2020 election, now works for the Thomas More Society and represents Brandtjen. He argued that legitimate absentee military voters could have their votes voided by fraudulent votes, and that the only way to prevent this was to escrow all ballots to ensure they are valid.

“Otherwise, how could we ensure that only genuine military ballots are counted? Gableman said.

Lynn Lodahl, an assistant attorney general representing the Elections Commission, called the request a “totally unworkable request” with no legal basis.

“There is no process in the statutes for sequestration,” she said. “The plaintiffs don’t explain what that means. They don’t explain how it will work.”

Military ballots represent a tiny fraction of all ballots cast in the state. On average, they make up about 0.07% of all mail-in ballots requested, according to the Wisconsin Election Commission. In the 2018 election, 2,700 military ballots were requested and as of Thursday, 2,747 military ballots had been requested for the current election.

In Wisconsin, military voters aren’t required to register to vote, meaning they don’t need to provide photo ID to request an absentee ballot.

All mail-in ballots must be received by the close of polls at 8 p.m. Tuesday to be counted. As of Sunday, more than 715,000 mail-in ballots had been returned.

The Union Veterans Council, an AFL-CIO constituency group, intervened in the lawsuit. The group’s chief executive, Will Attig, called the lawsuit “an unnecessary attack on people who are actively serving this country”.

Chris Yatchak, president of the group’s Milwaukee chapter, told a virtual press conference Monday that the lawsuit was an “outrageous attempt by a single individual to try to cast doubt on a free and fair electoral process.”

“I’m just appalled by this,” Yatchak said. “It’s a disgusting act.”

The case will certainly increase pressure on the state’s bipartisan Elections Commission, which Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Michels has said he wants to eliminate if he wins Tuesday’s election.

Gableman was fired from his job as an investigator earlier this year by Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos after his work was widely ridiculed and presented no evidence to defeat President Joe Biden’s victory. He has previously appeared in court representing Harry Wait, who was charged with voter fraud and impersonation after requesting and receiving mail-in ballots on behalf of lawmakers and local officials in July.

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