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Election 2020 Wisconsin
Wisconsin election officials from around Dane County bring ballots in Thursday for the recount that began Friday in Madison. (Wisconsin State Journal via AP)

Wisconsin recount may just be prelude to court

CHICAGO — President Donald Trump’s hopes to reverse his election loss in Wisconsin hinge on closing a deficit of some 20,500 votes, an almost impossibly high bar that spurs speculation his true goal is building a case for legal challenges that could win favor in the state’s conservative-controlled Supreme Court.

Trump’s recount petition makes clear he plans to attack absentee ballots, used far more heavily by Joe Biden’s supporters, in the partial recount that covers just Milwaukee and Dane counties — Wisconsin’s biggest and most liberal.

Some questions and answers about the recount:

Q: What are the chances the recount could deliver a win for trump?

A: History says no. There’s no precedent in Wisconsin or anywhere else of a recount changing the outcome with a margin as wide as Biden’s.

Q: What about irregularities claimed by trump?

A: Trump’s petition claims the counties issued ballots without first receiving written applications in violation of state law — perhaps more than 60,000 in Milwaukee alone. It says all those ballots should be disqualified, but offers no evidence for the claim.

People who vote in-person early fill out a certification envelope that they then place their ballot in and that envelope serves as the written record. But the vast majority of absentee requests these days are made online, with a voter’s name entered into an electronic log with no paper record.

Q: Any other allegations about absentees?

A: Mail-in ballots must include an outer envelope with the addresses of witnesses to the ballot. The Trump petition claims clerks broke the law by allowing staff to write in any missing addresses for those witnesses, and any such ballots should be disqualified.

But the bipartisan Elections Commission’s longstanding guidance has been that clerks can fill in missing information when they can reliably determine it. No court has ever ruled the practice illegal.

Q: What’s the issue trump raises about “indefinitely confined” voters?

A: Trump’s recount petition highlights a sharp uptick in voters who declared themselves “indefinitely confined,” a status that under Wisconsin law meant they didn’t have to provide photo ID to get an absentee ballot. The petition says the law was designed to apply to the infirm, seriously ill or disabled but was improperly invoked by tens of thousands of people during the pandemic. It offers no evidence for those claimed numbers.

The Wisconsin Republican Party sued Democratic Dane County Clerk Scott McDonell in March, before the state’s spring primary, over advice he had posted on his Facebook page that voters could declare themselves indefinitely confined due to the pandemic. The Wisconsin Supreme Court ordered McDonell to stop issuing guidance that is different from official language approved by the Wisconsin Elections Commission. The Trump campaign alleged that “the damage was already done” before McDonell was ordered to remove the language.

It’s not clear how the Trump campaign would prove that thousands of ballots were improperly obtained.

Q: What happens if a mail-in ballot is deemed defective?

A: There are no names on the ballots themselves and no clear way for vote counters to link a given ballot to given ballot application or envelop.

So, when a ballot is determined to have been wrongly counted for whatever reason, election officials randomly discount a ballot that was counted. Because the recounts are being conducted in overwhelmingly Democratic counties, the majority of votes pulled and thrown away would likely be for Biden.

Q: What is trump’s end game in Wisconsin?

A: The issues the Republicans are raising in the recount could muddy the waters and help Trump claim to his ardent supporters that he should have won.

A recount is also a required before a candidate can bring legal issues broached in a recount petition to court.

The recount must be done by Dec. 1, the deadline for the Wisconsin Elections Commission to certify the vote. State law gives that power to the board’s chair, who is currently a Democrat, and Biden’s electors were chosen by the Democratic Party in October. The state Legislature, although controlled by Republicans, has no role in that process.

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