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Wisconsin Braces for a Critical Court Ruling on Its Election

With just days to go before the start of mail voting in Wisconsin, an array of voting rights activists and political officials are bracing for a State Supreme Court decision, possibly as early as Monday, that could upend the elections process by forcing the reprinting of thousands of ballots and creating havoc in elections offices throughout the state.

Months after Wisconsin’s chaotic primary election was plagued by partisan rancor, the newest election confusion was prompted by the court’s decision on Thursday to delay the distribution of hundreds of thousands of ballots for the November election.

The court said it needed time to decide whether ballots should be reprinted to include Howie Hawkins, the Green Party presidential candidate, who had made a bid to be on the ballot.

Both Mr. Hawkins and another third-party candidate who had sought to be placed on the Wisconsin ballot, the rapper Kanye West, appeared to be receiving help from Republicans, who view both men as potentially able to siphon votes away from former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Democratic nominee.

The Wisconsin Elections Commission ruled in August that neither Mr. Hawkins nor Mr. West had qualified for the ballot, citing deficiencies in their applications. Late on Friday, a Wisconsin Circuit Court upheld the commission’s decision to keep Mr. West off the ballot. Mr. West’s campaign could still file an appeal to the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

Among voters and Democratic Party officials, the latest dispute provoked worries that the November election in Wisconsin was shaping up to be a reprise of the April primary contest, which was marked by last-minute legal wrangling as Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, sought to delay voting to prevent the coronavirus from spreading.

The governor’s plan was defeated by a 4-to-2 decision by the Wisconsin Supreme Court that ordered the election to go forward despite the objections of public health officials.

Noting the narrow partisan split on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, Democrats were girding on Sunday for another decision that might benefit third-party candidates and, effectively, President Trump’s re-election effort.

“With the Republican majority on the Supreme Court — they have four seats and we have three — whatever they can do to stop and hurt the Democratic Party, they will usually try to do,” said Chris Walton, the Democratic chair of Milwaukee County. “The same folks that made us vote back in April. It wouldn’t shock us at all. We shall see.”

Mr. Hawkins, the Green Party candidate, said in an interview on Sunday that he expected a vote in his favor. “Like everything up to this point, it will probably be a party-line vote and they’ll put me on,” said Mr. Hawkins, who expressed disgust with the decision by the Wisconsin Elections Commission to keep him and his running mate, Angela Walker, off the ballot based on a discrepancy in her address on petitions.

Mr. Hawkins, whose campaign filed the petition before the Wisconsin Supreme Court, acknowledged that his effort to be placed on the state’s ballot had been aided by conservative lawyers who were paid by an unknown benefactor.

“Republicans have played these games before,” Mr. Hawkins said. “If we had the money and we could get a lawyer ourselves, we would do it that way.”

But Mr. Hawkins, a retired Teamster, said he was hoping to give voice to supporters of his progressive agenda focusing on three major issues — the climate emergency, growing economic inequality and nuclear weapons.

Despite the jockeying to add Mr. Hawkins and Mr. West to the ballot in Wisconsin, where Mr. Trump defeated Hillary Clinton by less than 23,000 votes in 2016, experts said it was not at all clear that a third-party candidacy would swing the election in the state.

In 2016, the Green Party presidential candidate, Jill Stein, received about 31,000 votes in Wisconsin, more than the margin between Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton, though many of Ms. Stein’s supporters would not have voted had she not been in the race, experts said.

“The backers of Jill Stein were young and disaffected from the political system,” said Barry C. Burden, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Typically, minor-party voters are looking for somebody that’s different from what the major parties are offering.” (The Libertarian candidate in 2016, Gary Johnson, received more than 106,000 votes in Wisconsin.)

Christopher Devine, a political scientist at the University of Dayton in Ohio, said third-party candidates generally do better when there is an open seat. When an incumbent is running, Mr. Devine said, the question comes down to, “‘Do I throw this guy out or keep him?’ Voters are less open to considering other possibilities.”

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As of this week, 1,013,458 of the state’s 2.7 million active registered voters had requested absentee ballots in Wisconsin for the November election, according to data from the Wisconsin Elections Commission. The commission told the State Supreme Court that roughly 73,000 ballots had already been sent to voters for November, and that “it is possible that tens of thousands more ballots may already be sent by the time this court issues a decision” on whether to add Mr. Hawkins’s name.

Every voter in Wisconsin who was planning to vote by mail might be affected, but those living overseas or serving in the military might face the most severe impact, because those ballots need to be sent out early to account for longer delivery times.

Under federal law, overseas ballots are supposed to be mailed by Saturday. Under Wisconsin state law, elections offices are supposed to mail ballots by Thursday to those who have requested them.

A decision to reprint the ballots would affect clerks in all 72 counties and hundreds of municipalities across the state that handle elections. “Disarray would certainly follow if municipalities had to send a second set of ballots,” the Wisconsin Elections Commission told the court.

Of deep concern to Wisconsin election officials is whether a wholesale reprinting of the ballots is even possible. Wisconsin, like many other states, relies on specialized private vendors to print its ballots. Printings are expensive, time-consuming and difficult to schedule.

Indeed, because of the expected increased demand on these vendors from the nationwide expansion of voting by mail, election officials across the country sprinted this year to schedule and pay for printing runs earlier this summer.

“Given the high volume of print jobs, counties joined private printers’ printing queues as soon as possible,” the Wisconsin Elections Commission told the court on Sept. 3. “Restarting the process now would place all Wisconsin counties at the back of the printers’ queues.”

Milwaukee County has already spent $100,000 on its ballots, and hasn’t budgeted for a full reprinting, which election officials say will be “significantly more expensive” because the order will need to be expedited.

But even with an accelerated pace, timing is a concern. According to the elections commission, the print runs for counties with large orders like Milwaukee and Dane took roughly 10 days to complete.

“It is entirely unclear whether a statewide reprint would be feasible at this point at all,” the commission told the court.

Michael Maistelman, a lawyer in Milwaukee who has worked for Mr. Evers, said the continued legal maneuvering was creating distrust among voters.

“In April, we were trying to, because of Covid, we were trying to ease up some of the restrictions to make it easier for people to vote without exposing them to this deadly disease,” he said. “And the Wisconsin Supreme Court came in and played politics and nixed that.”

He added, “And now again, we’re playing politics, and they’re holding up all the absentee ballots from going out, which is supporting the narrative of the Trump campaign to sow seeds of confusion and irregularities in the system.”

J.B. Van Hollen, a former Wisconsin attorney general, is a co-chair of a bipartisan organization called VoteSafe, which is working to ensure safe voting in Wisconsin. He said his group was encouraging voters to “look past the uncertainties.”

“With the legal wrangling, and the uncertainty as to whether these ballots are going to be changed and printed later, if people want to vote absentee, the best bet is to do it as soon as possible,” said Mr. Van Hollen, a Republican. “At least their request is already in.”