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Wisconsin Republicans fast-track elections bills

Wisconsin State Capitol.

Wisconsin Republican leaders are fast-tracking a package of bills released Tuesday that would clamp down on who can obtain absentee ballots, give a GOP-controlled committee the power to eliminate staff and cut funding to state agencies and force the elections commission to get legislative approval before spending any federal money.

The measures are part of a nationwide effort by Republicans to reshape elections following President Joe Biden's win over Donald Trump.

The bills, circulated with a one-day deadline for co-sponsors to sign on, would almost certainly be vetoed by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers should they pass. But they also show the direction Republicans want to go should Evers lose his reelection bid in November.

Republicans are trying to move quickly on the package of bills because the Legislature is scheduled to end its session for the year in March.

Evers' spokeswoman Britt Cudaback had no comment on the latest proposals, but instead referred to Evers' previous comments in support of the state's current elections system and his veto of six Republican bills that would have made it more difficult to vote absentee.

Many of the bills are in reaction to recommendations made in a review of the election by the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau and another by the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty. The proposals come before final recommendations are made by former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman as part of his ongoing investigation ordered by Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos.

Biden's win by just under 21,000 votes over Trump in 2020 has withstood recounts, lawsuits and reviews.

A Republican-controlled committee has also ordered the Wisconsin Elections Commission to draft emergency rules governing the use of absentee ballot drop boxes and making changes to absentee ballot envelopes, such as missing addresses.

The commission voted Monday to move ahead with a rule on absentee ballots, but it deadlocked on what to do next on absentee ballot boxes. Republican lawmakers have threatened to file a lawsuit if the Feb. 9 deadline for proposing emergency rules is not met.

One bill circulated by Republicans on Tuesday would require the commission to submit any guidance it issues to election clerks to the Legislature's rules committee, which would have the power to effectively nullify any guidance it felt should instead be a formal rule. Enacting a rule can take months or years and is a more formal process than simply issuing guidance to municipal clerks as the elections commission routinely does currently.

Under another one of the new Republican bills, the Legislature's GOP-controlled budget committee could eliminate staff or cut funding for the elections commission and the departments of transportation, corrections and health services it lawmakers determine any of they failed to comply with election law.

Under another measure introduced by Vos and Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, the budget committee would have to sign off on the any spending of federal election money by the Wisconsin Elections Commission.

The bill would also increase reporting requirements for local election clerks.

That measure would also require nonpartisan attorneys at the elections commission to be partisan, just as the commissioners are divided equally among Republicans and Democrats. One attorney each would be appointed by Republican and Democratic lawmakers under the plan.

Other bills would:

— Limit who could claim to be indefinitely confined, which allows them to vote absentee without showing a photo ID. The indefinitely confined would be only voters who "cannot travel independently without significant burden because of frailty, physical illness, or a disability that will last longer than one year."

Anyone who declared themselves to be indefinitely confined during the pandemic would have to apply again.

— Prohibit anyone other than the voter, an immediate family member or a legal guardian to return an absentee ballot; not allow for absentee ballots to be automatically mailed to voters who have a standing request for that, except for those who are indefinitely confined and military and overseas voters; and requires all voters to enclose a copy of their photo ID when they apply for an absentee ballot.

— Prohibit the barring of special voting deputies from helping residents in long term care facilities only when there is a public health emergency or a disease outbreak that causes the facility to be closed to the public

"None of this makes our elections more secure or makes it easier for anyone to vote and have their vote count," Democratic state Sen. Chris Larson tweeted. "Even worse, it leaves the door open for political interference in what should be a neutral process."