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Wisconsin Senate committee holds hearing on election bills critics say make voting harder

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The fairness and accuracy of Wisconsin’s elections continues to be the topic of conversation among state lawmakers.

Monday the Senate Committee on Elections, Election Process Reform and Ethics held a public hearing on several bills. They included language regarding the administration of elections, absentee ballot applications, the status of indefinitely confined voters and state compliance with election laws.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu was the first to offer testimony on a bill he sponsored that relates to overseeing the administration of elections.

Senate Bill 941 would expand municipal clerks’ current reporting requirements, which include reporting certain registration and voting statistics. The bill adds to clerks’ responsibilities to report the number of defective ballots that were recreated and the number of provisional ballots cast. It also requires county clerks to submit an accounting of all ballots sent to each municipality, the number of ballots cast and the number of unused ballots.

LeMahieu said the Legislative Audit Bureau would review those reports. "Finally, the bill would require that legal counsel at the WEC (Wisconsin Election Commission) be partisan and appointed by the legislative leadership of the two major political parties. This change from nonpartisan to partisan council will advance transparency and guarantee viewpoint diversity at the commission," he said.

The move, LeMahieu said, helps better inform state election commission staff because they’ll have someone on their side interpreting the law for them.

But Democratic lawmakers and other critics questioned how the change from the commission’s nonpartisan legal counsel would advance transparency.

Matt Rothschild, the executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, said partisan legal counsel at the WEC would inject hyperpartisanship at the staff level. He said the last thing the group needs is more partisan haggling.

Rothschild shared his thoughts on two bills related to absentee ballots; one is Senate Bill 935.

"SB 935 has a whole bunch of specific things that the witness needs to do properly or the ballot can be thrown into the wastebasket. For instance, if I'm a witness for the absentee voter and I print my name and I signed my name, and I put Madison, Wisconsin down as my residence, but I neglect to put my street down — should the voter I'm witnessing for be disqualified because of that omission? The bill says yes and that seems ridiculous to me," he said.

Also included in this bill is language regarding private resources and contracts for election administration. The bill says no state agency or community may accept donations of funding, equipment, materials or personnel from nongovernmental entities for purposes of election administration.

The penalty would be a Class I felony.

Brenda Wood, a lobbyist from Milwaukee, explained that grants helped fund hazard pay for election workers in 2020. She said grants paid for the purchase of ballot processing equipment and personal protective equipment.

"Now is not the time to reduce opportunities for us to find creative nonpartisan private funding sources, which alleviate the burden on taxpayers with levy limits and frozen shared revenue. It's not really responsible to not allow us to find alternate sources of funding," Wood said.

Stephanie Birmingham testified via Zoom from Sturgeon Bay about a proposal that could impact voters with disabilities. She identified herself as a disabled voter and said she’s no stranger to addressing the senate committee on elections regarding barriers to disabled voters.

"To be honest to have to continue to speak out against the ableism and the paternalistic mindsets that plague these bills quite frankly is really exhausting," she said.

Birmingham specifically mentioned language in Senate Bill 937, which says voters who cannot travel independently without burden because of a disability that will last longer than one year can claim indefinite confined status. Those voters would have to apply for that status through the WEC.

The penalty for falsely claiming indefinite confinement is a fine of $1,000, six months imprisonment or both.

"SB 937 is concerning in that it uses the term indefinitely confined. I can't help but see this word as ableist and quite frankly perpetuating outdated stereotypes of people with disabilities," she said.

Birmingham recommended the committee change "indefinitely confined" to "permanent absentee voter due to disability

Republican Sen. Kathleen Bernier is the chair of the senate committee on elections and she authored the bill.

She explained her motive behind using the term indefinitely confined: "My goal is for people to understand that if you have a health condition that's gonna last quite a long time, you have this option. Especially those with long term diseases such as MS or Lou Gehrig's or you name it, then they have this option. But if you have a medium-term type thing, it's not a permanent disability that allows you this privilege."

Bernier said she’ll mull over the change in language.

Teran is WUWM's race & ethnicity reporter.
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