A GOP election observer who sought to overturn the votes of La Crosse college students didn’t follow proper procedure in raising her complaint and didn’t have standing to file the suit, a judge said.

La Crosse County Circuit Court Judge Elliott Levine rejected Mary Jo Werner’s motion for summary judgment as she challenged decisions made in last fall’s recount in the local sheriff’s race.

The main thrust of Levin’s ruling was that Werner should’ve first filed an administrative complaint with the Wisconsin Elections Commission objecting to how local officials administered the election. He also found questions over a voter’s qualifications including their residence is an issue administered by the municipal clerk. Werner named the county clerk in her suit.

Diane Welsh, who represented La Crosse County Clerk Ginny Dankmeyer, hailed the ruling.

“The decision is a victory for student voters — who are permitted to vote where they live in Wisconsin, and for Clerk Ginny Dankmeyer — who properly oversaw the recount for the sheriff’s race,” she said.

Werner attorney Erik Olsen said the ruling makes clear the process to challenge how a recount was conducted if the person suing isn’t one of the candidates.

“Now we know the direction we have to take,” he said.

Werner, a partner in a local accounting firm, filed the suit after a recount in the La Crosse County sheriff’s race upheld Dem John Siegel’s victory. During the recount, Republican Fritz Leinfelder objected to counting the votes of those who aren’t permanent residents of the county, largely targeting UW-La Crosse students. But Dankmeyer rejected the challenge, saying it should’ve been raised on election day, not after a recount. She also noted Wisconsin law makes clear student voters can cast ballots where they reside, so long as they’ve been in the ward for at least 28 days.

The recount confirmed Siegel’s victory by 176 votes, and Leinfelder conceded. Werner, though, filed the suit arguing her vote was diluted in three ways: allowing illegible witness signatures on absentee ballot envelopes; counting absentee ballots when there was no request for them on record and no proof the voter was unwilling or unable to vote in person; and allowing votes from students who had no record of residency in the county.

In his ruling, Levine rejected Werner’s argument that she had standing to file the suit because of her concerns that her vote had been diluted.

Werner cited a 4-3 2022 state Supreme Court ruling that barred the use of drop boxes for absentee ballots. Conservative Justice Brian Hagedorn, who was part of the majority that ruled the drop boxes are illegal, didn’t join his colleagues on the question of what gave the voters standing to file the suit.

Levine wrote in today’s ruling that Hagedorn and the three liberals in dissent expressly rejected the vote dilution standard for challenging election laws.

Welsh said that is noteworthy because it “rejects the notion that any individual voter can run directly to circuit court to challenge the alleged actions of an election official. If a voter has a concern with how local elections are run, they can take those issues up with their local election officials or file a complaint with the Wisconsin Elections Commission. After the Elections Commission has ruled on an issue, then a voter may ask the court to review that decision.”

Read the ruling here.

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