Elections Commission unanimously rejects challenge to Michels nomination signatures

MADISON, Wis. — The Wisconsin Elections Commission has unanimously decided to reject a challenge seeking to keep Republican candidate for governor Tim Michels off August’s primary ballot.

The challenge to Michels’ nomination papers was filed by a Wisconsin voter last weekend and backed by the Democratic Party of Wisconsin. It was filed on the basis that the Michels campaign had used two different addresses for the candidate on its nomination signature forms — one that included a full mailing address including a state identification and ZIP code, and one that did not.

In a memo sent to commissioners ahead of the meeting Friday morning, Wisconsin Elections Commission administrator Meagan Wolfe’s office recommended that Michels be allowed to appear on the August ballot.

“Candidates who provide reasonable evidence that either a mailing or residential address will, in and of itself, result in consistent mail delivery to the appropriate location have complied with the requirements of Wisconsin Statute Chapter 8. The Commission hereby orders staff to include this clarification in all relevant guidance and trainings,” the memo from Wolfe’s office said.

Ann Jacobs, the Democrat-appointed chair of the Wisconsin Elections Commission said while she could see why the challenge was filed, it was not enough to deny someone ballot access.

“I see the basis for the challenge, I think it’s appropriate to make it,” Jacobs said. “I don’t think it was frivolous, but I also don’t think it rose to the level where we can argue that it’s sufficient to keep someone off the ballot.”

“Keeping someone off the ballot is a serious matter and generally speaking, the voters should largely decide,” Jacobs added.

Attorneys for the person filing the challenge argued during the Commission hearing Friday that mail addressed without a state or ZIP code would not arrive at its destination, and therefore is not a valid mailing address, as is required.

“What I am saying is that in the 21st century, writing a street address, and in the Village of Chenequa, with nothing else is not a sufficient mailing address,” attorney Jeff Mandel said. “That is true under postal service guidance, it is true under what we were told by the Post Office, and it is true under just a common-sense reading of the statute.”

Because of that, Mandel argued, Michels’ nomination forms should not be considered to be in compliance with the state law.

“This Commission’s materials are very clear that a mailing address is… if you have a different municipality than you do for voting purposes, you’re required to put it in. He did not do that,” Mandel said. “What I would say is that that would probably qualify for substantial compliance if he’d specified the state, but he has not put in a valid mailing address, nor has he achieved substantial compliance.”

State law says a valid mailing address for the candidate must appear in the header of every signature page on the nomination form, but the challenge alleged that the vast majority of the signatures — 3,516 of the 3,861 collected — were on pages that did not include a full mailing address. A candidate for governor in Wisconsin needs at least 2,000 valid signatures to appear on the primary ballot.

“The issue here is that a vast majority of his nomination papers do not include a municipality and a state,” Mandel argued. “They include purely a municipality mail is not deliverable to.”

RELATED: Challenge claims Michels does not have enough valid signatures to get on Gov. primary ballot

The Michels campaign had previously responded to the challenge by saying the campaign’s P.O. Box address was listed on both versions of the form, and that the error on the first form that did not list Michels’ municipality of Hartland and the associated ZIP code was inadvertent.

“At no point have I or the Campaign sought to mislead any voters or signatories to my nomination papers about the location of my primary residence,” Michels wrote in an affidavit responding to the challenge.

In the official written response to the challenge, the Michels campaign argued that even though one of the forms used to collect signatures omitted a ZIP code, mail would still be delivered to that address if someone were to try to send it, which should satisfy the mailing address requirement in state law.

“The United States Postal Service has confirmed that any mail directed to the printed address would be delivered to Michels (as would any mail sent to Michels’ personal attention at the printed campaign address, a P.O. Box in Milwaukee). Nor is the printed address remotely likely to result in voter confusion, as the address containing “Hartland, Wisconsin 53029” is the first thing Google displays when one types “6831 State Road 83 in the Village of Chenequa” into the search engine. Because the nomination form contains Michels’ “mailing address”—namely, an address that can be used to send mail to Michels—it easily satisfies the requirement of Section 8.15(5)(b),” Michels’ written response said.

RELATED: Michels says address error on nomination forms ‘inadvertent’ in affidavit to Elections Commission

Attorney Matthew Fernholz, representing Michels during the Commission’s hearing, acknowledged the word or abbreviation for Wisconsin did not appear on many of the signature forms, but it would not be logical to assume the address would be anywhere but Wisconsin, considering the office for which he was seeking nomination signatures.

“There is no one who has been defrauded or misled by the form of Mr. Michels’ nomination paper,” Fernholz said. “Where is the affidavit from someone who signed one of those nomination papers and said, ‘Oh, geez, if I had known that he actually has Hartland as a mailing address, I never would have signed the guy’s nomination papers.’ These are substantially complaint.”

“He’s given the street name, the number, the municipality, and he is a declared candidate in the State of Wisconsin,” Fernholz added. “If the Commission is going to take the position that it doesn’t meet the precise definition of mailing address, even though that’s not defined in the statutes, then we go to substantial compliance, which is what the Commission has told us it is looking for.”

Another Democrat-appointed member of the Commission, Mark Thomsen, said there was “no reason” to keep Michels off the ballot.

“Common sense and justice to me say of course there’s no reason to keep (the signatures) off,” Thomsen said. “I think people would get very, very upset.”

The challenge came days after Michels received an endorsement from former President Donald Trump. Michels’ campaign manager had called the challenge “frivolous” and a “sideshow.”

Michels has surged in the polls after being a latecomer to the race for the Republican nomination for governor in April.

You can find all of the documentation and memos related to the Michels challenge here, beginning on page 706 of the PDF file publically uploaded to the Wisconsin Elections Commission website.