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Wisconsin Supreme Court pauses absentee balloting amid dispute over third-party candidates

The conservative-majority Wisconsin Supreme Court on Thursday ordered that absentee ballots not be mailed until the court resolves a dispute over which third-party candidates qualify for the battleground state’s ballot, raising concerns about delays as election deadlines near.

The 4-3 decision, which broke along ideological lines, stems from Green Party presidential candidate Howie Hawkins’s bid to appear on the ballot in Wisconsin, where polling shows Democratic presidential nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenSenate Democrats negotiating changes to coronavirus bill Rural Americans are the future of the clean energy economy — policymakers must to catch up WHO official says it's 'premature' to think pandemic will be over by end of year MORE holding a narrow lead over President TrumpDonald TrumpProsecutors focus Trump Organization probe on company's financial officer: report WHO official says it's 'premature' to think pandemic will be over by end of year Romney released from hospital after fall over the weekend MORE.

In addition to pausing delivery of absentee ballots, the ruling also set a 5 p.m. Thursday deadline for election officials to give the court information about ballots that have already been sent — which the court’s three more liberal justices blasted in a dissent as “asking the impossible” of the state’s nearly 2,000 municipal clerks.

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Election law experts were divided over the degree to which the court’s move might disrupt the vote in Wisconsin.

Ned Foley, a law professor at Ohio State University, said the development recalled the flurry of last-minute legal and political wrangling in the run-up to Wisconsin’s April primary.

“There was already a concern, based on the April primary, that Wisconsin would have difficulty handling its absentee ballot process in a way that would assure all eligible voters receiving a ballot in time to send it back so that it would meet the deadline for counting it,” he said. “This new development significantly exacerbates that concern.”

Justin Levitt, an election expert and professor at Loyola Law School, said that although the ruling “puts a real squeeze on Wisconsin election officials,” he expects the issue to be resolved quickly.

“The Wisconsin Supreme Court seems exceedingly aware about the problems it would cause to change the contents of the ballot once ballots have been sent, and — to its credit — it’s trying to figure out how many ballots are already outstanding,” he said. 

“To me, that indicates that if there are a significant number of ballots that have already been delivered, the court will find that it is too late to change the contents of the ballot, which would seem the correct ruling,” he added.

The order comes a week before the state’s deadline for municipal election clerks to mail absentee ballots. According to The Associated Press, nearly 1 million absentee ballots had been requested as of Thursday. 

In a separate case, rapper Kanye WestKanye Omari WestAfter fleeing Trump, will celebs return to DC under Biden? Amazon's shutdown of Parler is a threat to all small businesses 2020's top political celebrity moments MORE is requesting his name be put on the ballot as an independent candidate. West filed a lawsuit in Brown County last month, asking that the local court review a 5-1 decision by the Wisconsin Elections Commission to reject the rapper’s petition after he missed the deadline to file paperwork. 

Wisconsin Elections Commissioner Meagan Wolfe said Thursday prior to the court’s decision that some election clerks may have already mailed ballots without West’s or Hawkins’s names on them.