The Wisconsin Elections Commission voted unanimously Friday to reject a challenge that sought to keep Republican Tim Michels' name off the ballot for governor.
The 6-0 vote was noteworthy from a commission split 3-3 between Republicans and Democrats, but the decision could still be appealed in court.
Democrats asked commissioners to strike 3,516 of Michels' nominating signatures because they were collected on petitions that failed to list both his voting and his mailing addresses.
But in the end, that argument did not sway any commissioners, who said the error was not enough to keep Michels from the ballot.
"I see the basis for the challenge," said Democratic commissioner Ann Jacobs. "I think it's appropriate to make it. 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 is my inclination on this. It's up to the voters."
In a formal response filed with the WEC this week, Michels' lawyers described Democrats' challenge as "the slenderest of reeds," saying it would lead to the "radical" step of removing a leading gubernatorial candidate from the ballot based on a technicality.
The challenge, at its core, involved 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.
Those petitions, noted Democratic attorney Jeff Mandell, also did not include the state of Wisconsin or Michels' zip code in the mailing address.
"That is not deliverable mail," Mandell told commissioners. "It may have been in the days of the Pony Express ... but in the 21st century Post Office, that doesn't work."
Michels' attorney, Matthew Fernholz, told commissioners that mail sent to either address will be delivered by the U.S. Postal Service to the same home, which is common in rural Wisconsin.
"There is no one who has been defrauded or misled by the form of Mr. Michels' nomination papers," Fernholz told the commission.
The Michels campaign also said a Google search for either address would lead to the same location on the map.
Because of the way the commission is set up, had all three Democrats agreed with the challenge, they could have blocked Michels from getting on the ballot, at least initially. Instead, Democratic commissioners argued forcefully against the challenge, with Democratic commissioner Mark Thomsen saying it defied common sense.
"I think we would make a big, big mistake if we kept Mr. Michels off this ballot," Thomsen said.
The vote Friday followed the recommendation of staff at the WEC, who released a memo Friday morning recommending that the commission reject the challenge.
"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," read the memo from Jim Witecha, staff attorney at the WEC.
The Michels campaign issued a statement Friday afternoon celebrating the decision.
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"In each step of the process, from the day we turned in our papers, to the staff recommendation earlier this week, and now the unanimous vote of the Commission, our signatures were recognized as valid and sufficient, despite all the howling from the usual suspects," read the written statement from Michels. "My campaign has not lost a beat throughout this frivolous process."
Democrats said Republicans have a history of trying to remove voters from the rolls for alleged technical defects. They called Michels' actions hypocritical.
"Tim Michels was shown leniency for what was a technical error, but under a plain reading of Wisconsin election law, he should have been disqualified," read a statement from Wisconsin Democratic Party Executive Director Devin Remiker. "Ultimately, he broke the law."
Two years ago, the Wisconsin Elections Commission split 3-3 on whether to allow the Green Party's presidential ticket on the ballot because its nominating petitions listed different addresses for the vice presidential candidate. That sent the matter to court, where the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled against the Green Party on the grounds that there wasn't enough time to print new ballots. The Michels campaign argued that case presented a different set of circumstances because the candidate actually moved during the nomination process.
Democrats did not file challenges against other Republicans running for governor, including Rebecca Kleefisch, Kevin Nicholson, Tim Ramthun and Adam Fischer.
Commission elects Republican Don Millis as chair, rejecting bid by Republican Bob Spindell
Also Friday, commissioners voted 5-1 to elect Republican Don Millis to chair the Wisconsin Elections Commission.
Millis, a longtime Republican attorney with decades of history in election law, was appointed to the panel Wednesday by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos. He replaces Republican Dean Knudson who abruptly resigned last month. Knudson said it had been made clear to him that Republicans did not want him to chair the panel, a sentiment he attributed to his willingness to speak the truth about former Republican President Donald Trump's loss in the 2020 election.
Republican commissioner Bob Spindell, an outspoken critic of the WEC and one of ten Wisconsin Republicans who posed as electors after the 2020 election, did want the job. Spindell actively campaigned to be chair and nominated himself when voting started Friday.
But no other commissioners seconded his nomination. Instead, they backed Millis just two days into his second stint on the WEC. In the 5-1 vote choosing him as chair, only Spindell voted no.
Millis said he viewed WEC as akin to a referee or an umpire, saying they should not be noticed when they're administering the law.
"And it grieves me that the Elections Commission has gotten so much attention," Millis said. "Now we can argue about whose fault that is ... but it's clear that the commission is in the spotlight more than it should be."
Republicans created the Wisconsin Elections Commission in 2015 to replace the Government Accountability Board. The Republicans running for governor have called for eliminating the agency, but GOP lawmakers have argued it should be salvaged.