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Wisconsin Supreme Court rules Green Party presidential ticket is ineligible for state ballot

Election workers process absentee ballots for Wisconsin’s primary in Milwaukee on Aug. 11.
Election workers process absentee ballots for Wisconsin’s primary in Milwaukee on Aug. 11. (Will Cioci/Wisconsin Watch/AP)
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The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled Monday that the Green Party presidential ticket is ineligible to appear on the state ballot, a relief for state and local election officials who feared an addition at this late date would upend election preparations.

The decision comes after the Wisconsin Elections Commission declined on Aug. 20 to put presidential contender Howie Hawkins and his Green Party running mate, Angela Walker, on the Nov. 3 ballot because their signature petitions featured two different addresses for Walker.

State election officials had argued that the campaign failed to fix the discrepancy according to state requirements.

A reversal of that decision would have triggered a scramble across the state among election officials, who would have had to order new ballots — and find the money to pay for them — while facing imminent state and federal deadlines to send them to voters.

Pending Wisconsin Supreme Court decision on whether to add Green Party ticket to the presidential ballot upends election preparations

Now, cities and towns can get back to work mailing out ballots to the more than 1 million Wisconsin voters who have requested them. The state deadline for processing ballot requests already received this year is Thursday, and the federal deadline for mailing ballots to overseas and military voters is two days later.

After that, additional ballot requests will be processed on a rolling basis after those deadlines, up until the state deadline for requesting a ballot on Oct. 29.

“I am very happy that the Supreme Court respected the difficult job we have as election administrators,” Scott McDonell, clerk of Dane County, home of Madison, wrote in a text message shortly after the decision. “Their voters will get their ballot in a timely manner so they can vote safely.”

The state elections commission’s online system showed that cities and towns had been on the cusp of mailing as many as 378,000 ballots last week. Most local governments reported Friday that they had not actually sent any yet, but were still in the preparatory stages, stuffing envelopes and affixing mailing labels.

The state Supreme Court is controlled by a 4-to-3 conservative majority that has regularly ruled in favor of Republican interests over the past decade, notably in 2014, when it upheld a law ending collective bargaining for teachers that was championed by then-Gov. Scott Walker (R).

In its 4-to-3 ruling, with one conservative, Brian Hagedorn, voting with the majority, the court said that upending the election was one reason it denied the Green Party’s appeal.

“Even if we would ultimately determine that the petitioners’ claims are meritorious, given their delay in asserting their rights, we would be unable to provide meaningful relief without completely upsetting the election,” the opinion states.

Read: Wisconsin Supreme Court decision on Green Party bid

The court’s decision last week to halt the distribution of mail ballots while it considered the Green Party petition raised the prospect that a third-party candidate could be on the ballot in November, potentially siphoning votes from Democratic nominee Joe Biden. Rapper Kanye West is also fighting in court to get on the ballot in Wisconsin after his petition was denied by the election commission.

In a state that Donald Trump won by just under 23,000 votes four years ago — less than a percentage point — a third-party candidate could attract a difference-making number of votes. In 2016, Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein won more than 30,000 votes in Wisconsin.

Bob Spindell, a Republican member of the Wisconsin Elections Commission who voted to allow the Green Party on the ballot, said in an interview Monday that partisan leanings influenced the actions of many of those involved in both the Green Party and the West cases.

“To be truthful with you, the Republicans wanted West to be on the ballot, and Republicans wanted the Green Party to be on the ballot,” Spindell said. “Democrats did not want the West or Green Party tickets to be on the ballot.”

Hawkins suggested in an interview last week that Trump supporters had helped the Green Party ticket with its legal claim before the state Supreme Court. The party’s petition was filed by attorneys from the Milwaukee-based von Briesen & Roper law firm, which has a history of representing Wisconsin Republicans. Spindell said it was he who recommended von Briesen & Roper to the Green Party.

“You get help where you can find it,” Hawkins told The Washington Post when asked whether Republicans had financed the legal action. “They have their reasons and we have ours.”

Hawkins’s campaign manager, Andrea Mérida, later denied that, saying she “literally used Google” to find a law firm because others had turned her down. She said she doesn’t know the partisan affiliation of donors from Wisconsin supporting the Green Party ticket.

A von Briesen lawyer listed on the court filing, Andrew Phillips, did not respond to a request for comment. The chairman of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, Andrew Hitt, denied any involvement in the effort. A spokesman for the Republican National Committee declined to comment.

How to vote in your state in the 2020 election

The potential threat of a third-party ticket has been on the minds of Democrats and liberals, who have filed ballot-access challenges in other states, too. In Pennsylvania, because of pending litigation over whether the Green Party will appear on the ballot, the secretary of state so far has been unable to certify the presidential candidate list.

Also Monday, more than 170 environmental activists and scientists, including the founder of Earth Day and leaders of the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club, distributed a letter urging Americans to support Biden and not the Green Party.

“Twenty years ago, the Green Party snatched the White House from a climate-change leader and handed it to George W. Bush,” the letter states. “In Florida, no less than 97,488 progressive voters snubbed Al Gore for Ralph Nader, letting Bush win the state, and therefore the presidency, by 537 votes, or so the Supreme Court ruled.”

Wisconsin is one of at least five states where The Post has identified Republicans, including activists who had recently voiced support for President Trump, working on an effort to put West on the ballot. As with the Green Party ticket, the GOP involvement has raised fears among Democrats that West’s candidacy is intended to peel votes from Biden.

In West’s case, Lane Ruhland, a Madison lawyer and former general counsel for the state Republican Party, delivered his ballot petition to state regulators in early August.

Kanye West’s presidential bid bolstered by Republican operatives in at least five states

The commission voted 5-to-1 in August to bar West from the ballot, arguing that his petition had been submitted moments after a 5 p.m. deadline on Aug. 4. West challenged that decision in state court. A judge ruled against him Friday night, but the decision is expected to be appealed.

Questions about the Green Party ballot petition began in August, when a state voter complained that there was a discrepancy in Walker’s address on the party’s signature pages. The campaign said that Walker had moved during the signature-gathering phase.

State election officials determined that campaign officials failed to respond to a request to fix their signature sheets, which they could have done by submitting an affidavit explaining the address discrepancy.

Mérida denied that, pointing to emails between the campaign and the Wisconsin Elections Commission. Those emails show that the campaign was aware of the duplicate address for Walker and sought help to fix the issue, but there is no evidence of a sworn affidavit responding to the petition challenge.

In a report to the Wisconsin Elections Commission ahead of its Aug. 20 meeting, the commission’s staff argued that the affidavit would have “easily cleared up confusion” — but absent that, the commission is left with “legitimate arguments” against the petition’s validity.

Weeks later, the Green Party ticket asked the Supreme Court to intervene.

Rosalind S. Helderman and Alice Crites contributed to this report.