Wisconsin Democrats are seeking to block Republican Tim Michels from getting his name on the ballot in the governor's race, saying Michels failed to follow the law when he circulated his nominating petitions.
A formal challenge filed Saturday with the Wisconsin Elections Commission argues 3,516 of Michels' nominating signatures are invalid because they failed to list both Michels' voting address and his mailing address as required by state law. If the Wisconsin Elections Commission, or WEC, were to agree with the complaint, it would leave Michels well short of the 2,000 signatures required to get on the ballot for governor in Wisconsin.
The challenge comes days after Michels was endorsed by former President Donald Trump in the GOP primary for governor over fellow Republicans Rebecca Kleefisch, Kevin Nicholson and Tim Ramthun. While technical in nature, Democrats say the other candidates for governor followed the law to the letter.
"Election integrity means, at its core, following the law," Democratic Party of Wisconsin chair Ben Wikler told reporters Sunday during a media call. "And Tim Michels did not follow the laws laid out in Wisconsin statute to file enough valid signatures to make the ballot for the August primary."
The Michels campaign issued a written statement promising to "vigorously defend itself" when the Wisconsin Elections Commission meets to consider challenges Friday.
"Tony Evers and his insider allies are feverishly working to keep me from beating him in November," read a written statement from Michels. "It comes as no surprise that they launched a frivolous complaint in an attempt to keep me off the ballot, just days after I was endorsed by President Trump. They will not succeed."
When staff at WEC conducted their initial review of Michels' nominating petitions, they counted 3,861 valid signatures.
The challenge, at its core, involves the municipality Michels' campaign listed on the majority of his nominating petitions.
While all of his petitions listed the same street address, the challenged petitions listed his municipality as the "Village of Chenequa," which is Michels' voting address. Michels' mailing address — the one recognized by the U.S. Postal Service — uses the municipality of Hartland.
State law requires nominating petitions to list their mailing address at the top of every nominating petition. If a candidate's voting address differs from their mailing address, an instructional video from the Wisconsin Elections Commission directs candidates to list both.
"If the mailing address is the same as the residential address except for a difference in the municipality, that difference must be listed," states the instructions from the WEC.
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The complaint, which was formally filed by Madison resident Jane Bernstein, is being handled by attorney Jeff Mandell.
"Under Wisconsin law, if the information in the heading of a nomination paper is wrong, no signatures on that paper can count," Mandell told reporters Sunday.
The complaint challenging Michels' signatures notes that he listed both addresses when he filed another document — his formal declaration of candidacy.
Mandell said it appeared that Michels' campaign may have figured out its error because 345 of its signatures appear on a nominating petition that lists both the Hartland and Chenequa addresses. Those petitions, Mandell said, were circulated later in the nominating period.
"But you can't just try to slip things like this by," Mandell said.
Democrats said Republicans had filed a similar challenge against former Democratic state Sen. Patty Schachtner, who circulated petitions to run for the state Assembly this year. Schachtner briefly joined the media call Sunday and conceded her error.
"The Elections Commission has set out clear guidance to help candidates meet those requirements," Schachtner said. "Mr. Michels has failed to follow those rules. I know because my campaign has unfortunately made the same mistake."
Wikler did not say whether Democrats wanted the WEC to reject Schachter's candidacy.
Mandell said he was not aware of the Wisconsin Elections Commission ruling on this precise issue. But disputes involving candidate addresses are not new.
In 2020, Mandell challenged the nominating petitions for the Green Party's presidential ticket because they listed different addresses for the vice presidential candidate. The Wisconsin Elections Commission split 3-3 on whether to allow the Green Party on the ballot. That sent the matter to court, where the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled against the Green Party on the grounds that there was not enough time to print new ballots.
The Wisconsin Elections Commission is split 3-3 between Republicans and Democrats, and one of those positions is about to change hands. Republican Dean Knudson announced last month that he was resigning from the panel. That means Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, who appointed Knudson, will have a chance to select Knudson's replacement before Friday's meeting.