President Donald Trump holds a campaign rally at Kenosha Regional Airport Nov. 2, 2020. Screenshot from PBS video.

The Elections Commission in a unanimous vote late last night formally approved moving forward with President Trump’s requested recount of the results in heavily Dem Dane and Milwaukee counties.

The commission also made modest changes to the manual it provides local officials to provide guidance as they conduct the recount. But it deadlocked 3-3 on a pair of changes the staff recommended as GOP appointees complained they would undercut some of the arguments the president’s campaign lodged in his petition.

GOP appointee Dean Knudson predicted the recount, which is expected to begin tomorrow and last up to 10 days, would eventually go to court.

“Why are we changing this in the middle of the game when we know this is under litigation?” asked Knudson, who co-authored the law creating the commission while a GOP state lawmaker.

Dem appointee Mark Thomsen countered the staff recommendations weren’t about changing the rules, but reflecting the practices local officials have used in past recounts as well as advances in technology.

“The statute is the statute,” Thomsen said. “We can’t make stuff up.”

More than five hours into the contentious hearing, Commission Administrator Meagan Wolfe reminded commissioners the recount manual is simply guidance for local officials conducting the recount and ultimately “they are the decision-makers.” They also will look at state statutes and other sources if they have questions about how to proceed, she said.

Trump’s recount petition alleges a series of issues with absentee ballots as his campaign seeks to prevent thousands of votes from being included in the final tally.

The current margin for Joe Biden is 20,608 votes after the statewide county canvasses.

The issues include the president’s contention that those who vote early, in-person must first fill out a written application for an absentee ballot before being allowed to cast one. Past guidance from the state Elections Commission, however, notes the envelope voters sign as part of the early voting process also serves as an application and by signing it, “the voter specifically certifies that they requested the ballot.”

The petition also argues the Elections Commission provided “illegal” advice to local clerks that they can fill in missing information for witnesses to absentee ballots. That advice has been in place since October 2016, but the Trump campaign wants those ballots rejected, along with those from voters the campaign alleges falsely claimed they were indefinitely confined.

One of the core disagreements was a proposed change to the recount manual compared to the one the commission approved in 2018. The proposed change sought to clarify that state law doesn’t require every absentee ballot application to be reviewed during a recount.

Wolfe said the majority of absentee ballot requests now come through a state website that generates an email to local clerks notifying them of the request. All of the information from that online request is reflected in a log that is available to those conducting the recount.

But GOP members objected to not having all the applications available for review.

The commission also deadlocked changing a footnote to read, “An absentee ballot is defective only if it is not witnessed or if it is not signed by the voter or if the certificate accompanying an absentee ballot that the voter received by facsimile transmission or electronic mail is missing.”

The existing manual says a ballot is defective if “the witness did not provide an address, it is not signed by the voter, or if the certificate envelope or the certification language is missing.”

The change reflects the guidance the Elections Commission has provided clerks, but is being challenged by the Trump campaign.

GOP appointee Bob Spindell through much of the meeting suggested Wisconsin’s election laws are written so loosely that it’s unclear what they mean and a court will have to step in to provide clarity.

As the members continued to argue, Chair Ann Jacobs, a Dem appointee, said the commission “no longer has a view of what the law is.”

The commission, which has been marked by partisanship and the inability to reach compromise on significant issues, was even deadlocked on the language of the formal order required to move forward with the recount. Eventually, commissioners removed a proposed paragraph that would’ve directed clerks to look at the recount manual, state law and other materials for guidance.

The commission adjourned after more than six hours.

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