The conservative-controlled Wisconsin Supreme Court on Thursday ordered a halt in the mailing of absentee ballots until it gives the go-ahead or makes any future ruling about who should be on the ballot in the critical battleground state.
The order injects a measure of confusion into the voting process in Wisconsin a week before a state’s deadline for absentee ballots to be mailed to those with requests on file and less than two months before the Nov. 3 presidential election. Polls show a tight race in the state between President Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden.
An unknown number of ballots have already been mailed, and local election clerks sounded the alarm about what even a temporary delay in the process would mean.
“This is potentially a huge disaster,” said Dane County Clerk Scott McDonell. “Just the delay of a decision is deeply irresponsible and jeopardizes the integrity of our election.”
In the city of Madison alone, there were 100,000 requests for absentee ballots on file. Election staff planned to work all weekend on mailing them out, he said. If the court would order changes to the ballot, Dane County would have to print, package, sort and deliver 500,000 new ballots.
The ruling came in a lawsuit filed by Green Party presidential candidate Howie Hawkins. He asked the state’s highest court to take up his challenge of a Wisconsin Elections Commission decision keeping him off the ballot. The commission deadlocked in August on whether Hawkins had submitted the proper campaign paperwork to be placed on the ballot.
Rapper Kanye West, in a separate case, is also trying to get on the ballot after the commission voted 5-1 to reject him, saying his nomination papers were submitted too late. West argues that his papers, which were accepted minutes after the 5 p.m. deadline, meet the requirements to put him on the ballot. A Brown County judge said he hoped to rule within days on West’s lawsuit, which could cause further delays in the mailing of ballots.
Whether West and Hawkins are allowed on the ballot could have a significant impact in razor-close Wisconsin. The Green Party’s 2016 presidential candidate, Jill Stein, won 31,006 votes in the state, which was more than Trump’s 22,177-vote margin of victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton in Wisconsin.
The state Supreme Court, in a 4-3 decision split along ideological lines, said no ballots can be sent for now. Municipal election clerks face a Sept. 17 deadline to mail absentee ballots to anyone who had requested one. There is also a Sept. 19 federal deadline to mail ballots to voters overseas and in the military. As of Thursday, nearly 1 million absentee ballots had been requested in Wisconsin.
While Sept. 17 is the deadline for clerks to mail absentee ballots to those who already have a request on file, anyone who makes a request later will still be mailed a ballot. Oct. 29 is the deadline for most voters to request a ballot by mail. Returned ballots must be received by the time polls close at 8 p.m. on Election Day.
Wisconsin Elections Commissioner Meagan Wolfe said Thursday, just prior to the court’s order, that some clerks might have already mailed ballots without West’s and Hawkins’ names on them. If West or Hawkins ends up getting on the ballot, the clerks would likely send voters a new ballot, Wolfe said. Voters would also likely receive instructions telling them that their first ballot would still count unless they mailed in the second one, she said.
That scenario is “incredibly problematic,” Wolfe said.
The state Supreme Court asked the elections commission to provide it by 5 p.m. Thursday with detailed information about who had requested an absentee ballot, whether any had been sent, to whom they were mailed, when they were mailed and to what address. Wolfe said she did not know how many ballots had already been sent. Ballots are mailed by local election clerks.
The court’s three liberal justices dissented, saying “given the breadth of the information requested and the minimal time allotted to obtain it (the court) is asking the impossible of our approximately 1,850 municipal clerks throughout the state.”
Election officials, as well as the presidential candidates and political parties, have been urging voters to return their ballots as soon as possible because of concerns with slower mail delivery and the expected unprecedented number of absentee ballots. State elections officials have estimated that more than 2 million of the state’s roughly 3 million eligible voters will cast absentee ballots, largely over concerns about the coronavirus pandemic.
There are more than 170 lawsuits nationally over election procedures, often filed by the two major parties or their allies, that have injected a new level of uncertainty into a contest already disrupted by the pandemic. There has also been litigation over attempts by third parties like the Greens or candidates like West to get on the ballot in other states such as Arizona, Pennsylvania and Virginia.
There are 68,000 absentee ballots sitting at a printer, and Rock County clerks can’t do anything with them.
An order from the state Supreme Court on Thursday halted the mailing of absentee ballots seven days before state statute says ballots need to be mailed.
Rock County Clerk Lisa Tollefson said the 68,000 absentee ballots requested by clerks across the county finished printing the same day the Supreme Court made its ruling. Its possible the ballots might all have to be reprinted.
The court’s order stems from a lawsuit filed by Green Party presidential candidate Howie Hawkins challenging the Wisconsin Elections Commission’s decision to keep him off the ballot.
If the court allows Hawkins on the ballot, Rock County will have to reprint all its absentee ballots, which would cost taxpayers $19,000, Tollefson said.
Rapper Kanye West is also trying to get on the ballot. A Brown County judge said he hoped to rule within days on West’s lawsuit, which could cause further delays in the mailing of ballots, according to the Associated Press.
Janesville Clerk-Treasurer Dave Godek said his office had planned to start stuffing ballots into envelopes Monday or Tuesday.
Clerks can still prepare envelopes and do other tasks to get ready for mailing, but they won’t be touching ballots until the Supreme Court makes its decision, Tollefson said.
There is no sense sending ballots to the clerks if they might have to be reprinted, Tollefson said.
Godek expects to mail out 25,000 absentee ballots for the November election. As of Thursday, 11,822 absentee ballots have been requested in the city.
Janesville has seen substantial election activity this week, despite being “a random week in September,” Godek said.
In the last three days, 246 Janesville residents have requested absentee ballots and 118 people have registered to vote, Godek said.
Although absentee ballots will be delayed, Godek said it is better the order was issued six weeks from the election, rather than later.
Clerks have not received guidance about what would happen if a decision isn’t made in time to make the Sept. 17 deadline, Tollefson said.
The deadline to request an absentee ballot is Oct. 29, but Godek strongly encourages people request ballots by Oct. 22 to allow time for the request to be processed and for the ballot to be mailed and returned.
Ballots can be mailed to clerks’ offices or dropped off in person.
Janesville will be installing a larger drop box outside city hall’s Wall Street entrance to accommodate a large number of absentee ballots, Godek said.
Voters can register to vote and request an absentee ballot online at vote.wi.gov or by contacting their municipal clerk’s office.
The election will be held Nov. 3.
Matt Krueger pedaled 100 miles on Labor Day to finish the last leg of his self-described “crazy challenge.”
He biked from Janesville to Rockdale to Cambridge to Waterloo to Lake Mills to Fort Atkinson to Milton and back to Janesville.
Some five hours and 48 minutes after starting, he returned home to Janesville.
When Krueger felt weary during the journey, he thought about all the people who have reached out to him personally or online with their own struggles or the struggles of loved ones.
He knew that what he felt was not as hard “as the pain of those battling with mental illness and depression,” he said.
Krueger began his biking challenge Aug. 10. He vowed to finish 750 miles by Sept. 7 to raise money for the Rock County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
He and his team raised $3,000 to help NAMI develop a new peer-support program in cooperation with Rock County schools.
The program is designed to give young people a safe, nonjudgmental place to talk about mental health challenges.
“We are hearing from schools,” Krueger said. “There are a lot of kids dealing with this.”
Supporters say such a program is critical at a time when suicide is the second-leading cause of death among young Americans ages 15 to 24.
“It is alarming,” said Lindsay Stevens, executive director of NAMI Rock County. “It is saddening. We need to do something for our youth.”
The nonprofit NAMI Rock County wants to raise $50,000 during fundraising activities to support the new program and established programs.
“We don’t have any peer-based programs for youth to attend,” Stevens said. “Even if adolescents are seeing a therapist, they might still feel like adults don’t know what it is like being in their shoes. We know that providing a peer-support program is beneficial.”
Currently, the pandemic has put the brakes on implementing the program.
“The priority for schools has been how to continue educating our children,” Stevens said. “So it has been hard for us to step in and ask what the best way is to bring this program into the school.”
Such a program would stop misconceptions about mental illness, provide support and resources, and give young people a safe place to talk without fear of being teased or bullied, she added.
“We need to normalize the conversation,” Stevens said. “We know when mental-health conditions go untreated, they can lead to substance abuse and criminal activity. We don’t want our youth to end up in the criminal justice system because they are not getting the support they need.”
NAMI wants to work as a team with teachers, school staff and clinical providers, Stevens said.
“No one can do it alone,” she said.
Krueger started his business, Krueger Financial, in 2004. His brother, Nathan, died by suicide the next year.
“For 10 years, I just buried it,” Krueger said. “It is almost like a taboo subject. I didn’t talk about what happened. Men are supposed to be strong.”
With the urging of his wife, Carrie, Krueger sought help.
“About four years ago, I woke up and asked myself what can I do to leave a legacy in Nathan’s name,” he said.
Krueger began sharing his story with financial groups and donated the money he earned from his talks to NAMI.
“The more I talk about my brother and the more I share my story, the better I feel,” Krueger said. “I want it to help others share their stories.”
He also got involved with NAMI Rock County, where he is president of the board of directors.
He has advice for others who suffer as he once did:
“There are people out there who want to help and who can help,” Krueger said. “Talk to someone you trust. Don’t hold it in. Getting help is not a weakness. I look at it as a strength.”
Anna Marie Lux is a human interest columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264 or email email@example.com.
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As virtual education emerges as a popular way to teach students during a pandemic, concerns are being raised about high student-teacher ratios at the Janesville School District’s virtual school.
Janesville Education Association President Dave Groth shared teacher perceptions of a staff shortage at ARISE Virtual Academy at Tuesday’s school board meeting.
“There’s just concern about student levels on some of those (classes) as high as around 250 students right now per staff member,” Groth told the board. “There’s not enough hours in the day to be contacting, especially with video conferences, that many parents/students.”
However, district leaders say the staffing situation is stable.
Assistant Superintendent Scott Garner told The Gazette that ARISE is 98% staffed. The only unfilled positions are elective classes with one to two sections, and those will be staffed by next week, he said.
As of Thursday morning, ARISE’s enrollment stood at 3,097 full-time students and 786 hybrid students who are taking a blend of in-person and virtual classes.
By contrast, about 243 students attended the virtual school last year.
In an interview Thursday, Groth said he was only raising concerns he’s hearing from teachers—that the flood of new students driven to ARISE by the pandemic might be making the teaching workload difficult.
One factor Groth said he was unsure about was the role of paraprofessionals, the educators who help teachers with virtual teaching duties. He said ARISE classes have been much smaller in the past, so he didn’t know how paraprofessionals’ roles had changed this year.
“There’s so many things going on right now, and it’s just us trying to understand,” he said.
“We know there’s going to be a learning curve, but we just want to make sure things are going as smooth as they can.”
Garner said the district tries to limit teacher-student ratios at ARISE to a maximum of 200 students per teacher. Classes of that size are typical at the virtual school for core classes such as math and English, he said.
The only class that has 250 students at ARISE this fall is personal finance. It’s in high demand in the district and for open-enrolled students because it is a state requirement for graduation, Garner said.
For every 40 students in an ARISE class, the district adds a paraprofessional to assist the teacher. So for a class of 200 students, a teacher would have five paraprofessionals.
The personal finance class will have six paraprofessionals under the district’s policy. Garner said the district tries to keep paraprofessionals working with the same group of students within a class.
“Our job is to build relationships and create connections, and that helps us do that,” he said.
As of Wednesday, 33 district teachers had been transferred to ARISE, and an additional 29 teachers had been hired from outside the district to work at the school.
Those positions are considered “limited term,” meaning that they exist for the duration of time they’re needed because of higher enrollment, Garner said.
If COVID-19 and a larger enrollment at ARISE continue in the next school year, a number of teachers could return.
Some in-person teachers also are teaching a class at ARISE during their prep periods, which the district refers to as an overload. Teachers are asked, but not forced, to teach during prep periods, Garner said.
Teachers are typically scheduled to work six of the eight hours in a work day. Those working an overload work seven hours and are paid for the extra time.
Part of the staffing uncertainty that kicked off the school year stemmed from families who were still choosing their delivery method, district spokesman Patrick Gasper said.
“We went into the school year last week, and we still had roughly 900 families who hadn’t decided yet, and so we’re still trying to adjust (staff) based on that new information coming into this week and last,” he said.
Despite a few bumps and some staffing movement in the first two weeks, Garner said those at ARISE will see progress.
“This has been a crazy first part of the year, but trust in the system, and it will work,” he said.