Teigen v. Wisconsin Elections Commission

No. 21-CV-958

Wisconsin law allows local clerks to provide multiple options to return a completed, sealed absentee ballot. Voters can return their ballot to the clerk’s office in person, send their ballot via USPS, or return it to their clerk at a designated drop box. During the 202o pandemic elections, we all saw the importance of ballot-return options: with more Wisconsinites than ever voting absentee, our clerks and postal workers put in long hours to minimize delays and maximize safety. Many cities installed new or additional drop boxes to help voters return ballots safely and on time.

Even as it was more widely embraced than ever, absentee voting faced legal attacks by politicians and partisan operatives seeking to limit participation in our democracy. Every time, these challenges to absentee voting rules were turned away by the courts. But we’ve seen the same attempts to restrict absentee voting in 2021. Recently, we filed a brief asking the Wisconsin Supreme Court to turn away one of these challenges in Fabick v. WEC. The Court refused to take that case, but the reprieve was short-lived. Just days later this case was filed in Waukesha County Circuit Court.

Teigen v. WEC attacks the same absentee voting procedures challenged unsuccessfully in recent litigation. In the complaint, Teigen asserts long-standing voting practices in Wisconsin are unlawful. If successful, this lawsuit would prohibit the use of drop boxes and other popular ballot return methods.

In addition to outlawing drop boxes, this challenge would prohibit a family member or neighbor from carrying a voter’s completed and sealed ballot to the clerk’s office at the voter’s request, requiring voters to rely on USPS mail return if they are unable to deliver their ballot personally. The lawsuit also challenges ballot-return options that are outside the clerk’s office: it would prohibit events like Madison’s “Democracy in the Park” where voters could return ballots to the clerk at a temporary location.

On August 13, we filed a motion to intervene in this case on behalf of three organizations that educate, assist, and engage voters: Disability Rights Wisconsin, the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin and Wisconsin Faith Voices for Justice. Together, we stand ready to protect absentee voting in Wisconsin. On Tuesday, October 12 Law Forward counsel Mel Barnes successfully argued our motion to intervene in the case. This is an important development for our clients because it means that the organizations and their members’ interests will be heard as the court contemplates these important decisions.

Case Timeline


 

October 15, 2021

The plaintiffs filed a motion asking the court to 1) eliminate the ability of municipalities and counties to use drop boxes to collect absentee ballots; and 2) require voters using absentee ballots to personally hand over their ballot to the clerk. Both of these changes are significant deviations from the use and understanding of absentee voting in Wisconsin. For example, many couples fill out their absentee ballots at the same time and one spouse drops both ballots off at the clerk’s office. Sometimes a person might offer to help out an elderly neighbor and drop off their ballot. The plaintiff’s motion would prohibit anyone from assisting their spouse, family member, or neighbor in turning in their ballot.

Wisconsin Faith Voices, the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, and Disability Rights Wisconsin represent thousands of Wisconsinites who have a right and interest in ensuring safe and accessible absentee voting. They recognize that not everyone has the ability to vote in person on election day, or even to travel personally to the clerk’s office without significant barriers. Law Forward believes it is critical for these voters, and all voters, to have equal and fair access to the ballot box. We will continue to fight for our clients to ensure their ability to vote by absentee ballot is protected.

February 2, 2022

On behalf of Disability Rights Wisconsin, League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, and Wisconsin Faith Voices, we filed a motion with the Wisconsin Supreme Court asking to keep drop boxes and ballot assistance in place through the April 5 election. Because the Feb. 15 primary and the April 5 general are two parts of the same election, we asked the Court to follow established law that once an election has already begun, it is too late for the court to change the rules without causing harm to voters.

We also wrote a letter to the court seeking clarification on the deadlines in this case.

February 17, 2022

We filed a brief with the Wisconsin Supreme Court to show why drop boxes are legal in Wisconsin.

Because the Wisconsin Supreme Court refused to stay the ruling of the circuit court prohibiting drop boxes for the April 5, 2022 election, that election will not have the benefit of any direction from the Supreme Court on whether drop boxes or absentee ballot return assistance is legal. More urgently, it means that the ruling from the circuit court, which prohibits drop boxes and eliminates ballot return assistance, is now in effect creating uncertainty for both municipal clerks and voters.

If anyone is confused about how they should vote as a result of the circuit court ruling, they should call their local municipal clerk immediately. When possible, communicate via email to get this information in writing.

March 21, 2022

We filed our reply brief to rebut and refute the arguments raised by the Respondents. We explained how Teigen and Thom failed to follow the proper process to bring this lawsuit in the first place – they needed to file their complaint first with the Wisconsin Elections Commission but did not. The Supreme Court should throw out the case entirely based on this. We also explained why their interpretation of Wisconsin’s absentee ballot statues are fatally flawed, including how the record is replete with examples of Wisconsin residents who would be disenfranchised if their interpretation is adopted into law. We also argued that a prohibition on ballot return assistance and drop boxes does not exist, that existing Supreme Court precedent protects absentee ballot return assistance, and that their suggestion, that ballot return assistance is a crime, is ridiculous and unprecedented.

Oral arguments are scheduled for April 13, 2022.

April 13, 2022

The Supreme Court of Wisconsin heard oral arguments.. Legal Action’s President and Lead Counsel, Jeff Mandell, argued on behalf of our clients, Disability Rights Wisconsin, Wisconsin Faith Voices for Justice, and the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin. He explained to the justices how Mr. Teigen failed to follow the rules in bringing his complaint, and how a ban on drop boxes and absentee ballot return assistance would harm voters with disabilities.

July 8, 2022

In a 4-3 decision, the Wisconsin Supreme Court created new barriers to the ballot box.

CASE CATEGORY:
Voting Rights & Access

JURISDICTION:
Wisconsin State Supreme Court

CASE STAGE
Closed