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Wisconsin election clerks rush to mail ballots after delay

MADISON — Election clerks across the presidential battleground state of Wisconsin rushed to mail absentee ballots Tuesday, less than 24 hours after the state Supreme Court lifted a temporary freeze on sending them while it considered a legal challenge.

“Oh, we’re busy,” said Wendy Helgeson, the Town of Greenville clerk who also serves as president of the Wisconsin Municipal Clerks Association.

More than 1,850 clerks in municipalities big and small were working to meet a Thursday deadline in state law to mail ballots to the more than 1 million voters who had requested them so far. Absentee ballots can be requested until Oct. 29, but election officials have urged voters to act more quickly given the expected large numbers and delays with the mail.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court on Sept. 10 ordered a stop to all mailing of absentee ballots while it considered whether the Green Party presidential candidate should be added. Clerks had started to mail ballots in some cities, while others had to stop massive mailings they had ready to go.

The court lifted its freeze just before 5 p.m. Monday, declining to put Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins on the ballot.

In Madison, the state’s second-largest city, the clerk’s office tweeted pictures of employees working to prepare ballots just minutes after the ruling.

“We are working late so we can start mailing out absentee ballots first thing in the morning,” the clerk’s office tweeted Monday evening. One image showed a sign that said “Rush” on a line of folders.

Clerks also face a Saturday deadline in federal law to send ballots to military and overseas voters.

“I’m working on it right now,” Helgeson said of her town’s 2,500 absentee ballots. “I’m trying to post it.”

Helgeson said that while clerks were waiting for the ruling, they were doing all the work necessary to prepare the ballots for mailing, including initialing every one. Now she expects clerks are hustling to get them sent, Helgeson said.

Wisconsin Elections Commission spokesman Reid Magney said the commission told clerks immediately after the ruling that they could move ahead with mailing ballots.

“We’re assuming that it’s all systems go,” he said.

Rapper Kanye West also filed a lawsuit to get ballot access in Wisconsin. He lost Friday in Brown County Circuit Court and has not yet filed an appeal. His attorney, Greg Erickson, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

The uncertainty of the West lawsuit, and whether it could result in an order to reprint ballots, weighed on the mind of La Crosse city clerk Teri Lehrke. She was busy Tuesday preparing about 9,000 absentee ballots to mail on Wednesday and Thursday.

“That’s out there,” she said of the West lawsuit. “But we have to move forward.”


AP’s Advance Voting guide brings you the facts about voting early, by mail or absentee from each state:

Vision 2020: Electoral College vs popular vote in America

WASHINGTON — Election Question: Why is it that one candidate can win the popular vote but another wins the electoral vote and thus the presidency?

Answer: That’s how the framers of the Constitution set it up.

This unique system of electing presidents is a big reason why Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016. Four candidates in history have won a majority of the popular vote only to be denied the presidency by the Electoral College.

The Electoral College was devised at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. It was a compromise between those who wanted direct popular elections for president and those who preferred to have Congress decide. At a time of little national identity and competition among the states, there were concerns that people would favor their regional candidates and that big states with denser populations would dominate the vote.

The Electoral College has 538 members, with the number allocated to each state based on how many representatives it has in the House plus its two senators. (The District of Columbia gets three, despite the fact that the home to Congress has no vote in Congress.)

To be elected president, the winner must get at least half plus one — or 270 electoral votes.

This hybrid system means that more weight is given to a single vote in a small state than the vote of someone in a large state, leading to outcomes at times that have been at odds with the popular vote.

In fact, part of a presidential candidate’s campaign strategy is drawing a map of states the candidate can and must win to gather 270 electoral votes.

In 2016, for instance, Democrat Hillary Clinton received nearly 2.9 million more votes than Trump in the presidential election, after racking up more lopsided wins in big states like New York and California. But she lost the presidency due to Trump’s winning margin in the Electoral College, which came after he pulled out narrow victories in less populated Midwestern states like Michigan and Wisconsin.

It would take a constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College — an unlikely move because of how difficult it is to pass and ratify constitutional changes. But there’s a separate movement that calls for a compact of states to allocate all their electoral votes to the national popular vote winner, regardless of how those individual states opted in an election. That still faces an uphill climb, though.

Vision 2020 is a new series from the AP dedicated to answering commonly asked questions from our audience about the 2020 U.S. presidential election.

BeerFest set to support youth hockey

The 12th annual Northwest BeerFest, which is the top fundraiser for the Chippewa Youth Hockey Association, was originally scheduled to be held at the rink in April.

Like so many other events, the plans were canceled when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

However, the beer-tasting event was rescheduled for Saturday, and it has been relocated to the Northern Wisconsin State Fairgrounds, allowing fest-goers to enjoy food and drinks outside.

“It’s a big space that is safe to walk around,” said event organizer Angella Niblett. “It gives us the opportunity to spread out a lot more.”

The Chippewa Youth Hockey Association worked with the Chippewa County Department of Public Health to develop a COVID-19 safety plan. Niblett said they have capped capacity at 500 people, and safety measures are in place ranging from hand-sanitizer stations to switching to disposable cups.

“We had to pass on the commemorative glasses this year,” she said.

Because the event is outside, food vending trucks will be on site. They typically have had 150 different beers on tap.

“We are expecting as many varieties of beer as the past,” she said.

The Chippewa Youth Hockey Association is operated entirely by its members and doesn’t receive city dollars to operate the Chippewa Area Ice Arena.

“This event is huge in keeping our costs down for kids,” she said.

Steve Gibbs, vice-president of the hockey association, said the club usually makes between $20,000 and $30,000 from the BeerFest fundraiser. In some past years, they’ve had 1,200 patrons attend the event.

“With all of our fundraisers being canceled, this is hugely important for keeping our rink viable,” Gibbs said.

The Chippewa Area Ice Arena has two rinks, and since purchasing new equipment in 2015, the ice on the newer, south sheet is maintained year-round. That changed this year because all games and practices were canceled when the pandemic hit.

“We took (the ice) off from March to June,” Gibbs explained. “It’s roughly $7,000 to $9,000 a month to keep it on.”

Gibbs said the building is back open with safety measures in place.

“We have teams practicing, but we aren’t allowing any use of the locker rooms. They are getting dressed in the parking lot,” Gibbs said.

The Chippewa Area Ice Arena is located at 839 First Avenue in the northeast corner of the city.

The Chippewa Youth Hockey Association formed in 1972, and the building was completed in 1978 with one skating rink. In October 2000, construction began on the south wing to add a second ice sheet. It was finished in January 2004.

The hockey association is comprised of about 250 families, totaling between 300 and 400 children in hockey and figure skating.

An outdoor rink was added in 2016 as part of a $1.1 million remodel of the building that included adding locker rooms. The outdoor rink will host the “Cardinal Kickoff” on Saturday, Sept. 26, which is a fundraiser for the Chi-Hi Athletic Booster Club. That event is 6-11 p.m., and will include a live band.

GOP Wisconsin elections commissioner advised Green Party

MADISON — A Republican member of the Wisconsin Elections Commission advised a Green Party representative about who to hire as an attorney after its presidential nominee was denied ballot access in the key battleground state, records obtained by The Associated Press show.

The commission deadlocked 3-3 Aug. 20 on whether to put Green Party presidential candidate Howie Hawkins on the ballot. All three Republicans were in favor, while all three Democrats were against. Hawkins asked the Wisconsin Supreme Court to put him on, but the court in a 4-3 ruling Monday rejected that request. The court also lifted an order it issued last week pausing the mailing of absentee ballots while it considered the challenge.

The email string obtained Monday by the AP under an open records request shows that commission member Bob Spindell emailed Kevin Zeese, then-press secretary for Hawkins, less than 24 hours after the commission voted to keep him off the ballot. Zeese died of a heart attack at age 64 on Sept. 5, the Green Party announced on Sept. 6.

Spindell, a Republican who supported putting Hawkins on the ballot, wrote to Zeese that he was “very sorry. but not surprised, the three Democrat Commissioners fought hard to keep the Green Party off the Ballot.”

“The Democrat Party obviously believes this action would push your members to vote for Biden — if they could not vote for their own Green Party Candidates,” Spindell wrote.

In response to the Spindell email, Zeese asked if he could recommend a “good lawyer to handle the case.” Spindell had suggested during the commission’s discussion about putting Hawkins on the ballot that the issue may need to be considered in court.

Spindell responded, “Please call me,” and provided his personal cellphone number.

Spindell said Tuesday that he recommended two attorneys. One was Michael Maistelman, who worked with the Democratic Party in a challenge to the

candidacy of rapper Kanye West, and the other was Andrew Phillips.

When the Green Party filed its lawsuit on Sept. 3, Phillips was one of its attorneys.

Phillips has ties to Wisconsin Republicans. He was hired last year by Republicans on the Legislature’s budget committee in a battle they were having with Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul over how to handle court settlements.

Phillips did not immediately return messages seeking comment Tuesday. Maistelman said he could not comment on whether he had contact with the Green Party.

Spindell didn’t break the law or ethics rules by contacting the Green Party, said Kevin Kennedy, the former top elections official for Wisconsin who retired when the current elections commission was created in 2016. Still, Kennedy said contacting the Green Party knowing that they were about to sue the state was “just plain stupid.”

“It’s clearly bad judgment,” Kennedy said. “It clearly undermines the credibility of the commission.”

Mark Thomsen, one of the commission’s three Democratic members, said Spindell has the right to call anyone he likes.

“Do I take personal offense? No,” Thomsen said. “Do I think it was unethical No? Do I think it was prudent? No. But what is very clear is that the Green party relied on Republican Party recommendations for launching their belated attack on the commission decision.”

Spindell said Tuesday that he had no regrets and he had done nothing wrong and that it was an “injustice” for the commission to keep Hawkins off the ballot.

“If I think some of the decisions on the Elections Commission are wrong, I’m not going to keep my mouth shut,” Spindell said. “I’m going to tell people about it. I think it’s my obligation to the citizens of Wisconsin to do that.”

Spindell, in his email to Zeese, requested more information about the issue that kept Hawkins off the ballot in Wisconsin — the address put on nomination papers by his vice presidential candidate Angela Walker. He asked whether Walker lived at one of the addresses and if so when she had moved from the other address.

“I am curious, (only personally — not as a member of the Commission),” Spindell wrote. “You certainly do not need to provide me with those two answers — but if you want, and it will not interfere with your possible lawsuit, I would sure like to know.”

Hawkins campaign spokesman Robert Smith said that the campaign manager got no referrals for attorneys and instead “reached out to law firms simply by searching Google.”

“The campaign would have welcomed a progressive-leaning law firm,” Smith said. “Many did not give the courtesy to reply. With time against us, we went with what we got.”


This story has been corrected to show that Walker is a candidate for vice president, not lieutenant governor and to correct attribution of last quote to Smith instead of Hawkins.


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AP’s Advance Voting guide brings you the facts about voting early, by mail or absentee from each state: