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Wisconsin voters just passed two constitutional amendments. How will that affect elections?

Some Wisconsin municipalities may have to go in a new direction when it comes to funding their elections after voters narrowly passed a constitutional amendment banning private funds in election administration.
Maayan Silver
Some Wisconsin municipalities may have to go in a new direction when it comes to funding their elections after voters narrowly passed a constitutional amendment banning private funds in election administration.

Voters passed two constitutional amendments in Wisconsin’s spring election. Wisconsin’s Constitution now says (1) private funds can’t be used to run elections in Wisconsin, and (2) only election officials designated by law can administer elections. What does this mean for elections in Wisconsin going forward?

A Bit of Important Background

Wisconsin’s Legislature is currently under Republican control. After the 2020 election, Republicans in the state were swayed by the same undercurrent of dissatisfaction with election results as Republicans were nationwide, responding to former President Donald Trump’s false claims that the election was stolen. Republicans in Wisconsin, as elsewhere, became concerned with election integrity, in part to make sure that the playing field has not been tilted towards Democrats.

How elections work in Wisconsin

Wisconsin’s Legislature makes the law relating to elections and the bipartisan Wisconsin Elections Commission oversees the implementation of federal and state election laws and establishes uniform standards and trains local officials. The WEC has a non-partisan elections administrator and three Republican and three Democratic commissioners.

However, elections ultimately happen at the local level. In Wisconsin, that means they’re conducted by over 1,900 local election officials in 72 counties and 1851 municipalities (towns, villages, and cities). The City of Milwaukee has its own Board of Election Commissioners, as well. All these municipalities have different needs when it comes to funding their election administration and who's needed to run the elections.

What was on the ballot?

Two issues stood out to Republicans in Wisconsin. First, they were upset about money distributed during the 2020 election by the Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL). It’s an organization funded by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. The non-partisan group says its purpose is to “ensure that our elections are more professional, inclusive and secure.”

CTCL gave out a series of grants of about $10 million to local government in Wisconsin to run the 2020 election in almost 200 communities. Republicans called this “Zuckerbucks.” The majority of that funding went to the five largest cities in Wisconsin: Milwaukee, Madison, Green Bay, Kenosha, and Racine. The money went towards aspects of election administration like supporting early in-person and curbside voting, poll worker recruitment, and training and safety measures for the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet all these cities vote fairly Democratic in elections, and Republicans cried foul.

There were also stories about a consultant who helped run elections in Green Bay.

“Republicans feel like that person had a Democratic background, and [the role he played in 2020] was inappropriate. And they don't want to see that again,” says JR Ross, editor of WisPolitics.com.

Republicans in the legislature had been stymied by Democratic Gov. Evers on their attempt to pass legislation. Evers has vetoed close to 190 GOP-drafted bills in his two terms, says Ross, which is why they went to constitutional amendment. “[Republicans thought] ‘OK, if we can't get it through the governor, we'll go to the constitutional amendment process,” says Ross. That requires passing the bill in two successive legislative sessions and going to voters for referendum, which means it’s a question on the ballot for voters to decide.

Wisconsin's 2024 Spring Election Results:

Voters passed the constitutional amendment to prohibit private funds in elections by 54.5% and passed the second constitutional amendment to declare that only election officials under law can run elections by 58.6%. Other states have also banned private money in elections.

What will it mean for Wisconsin municipalities not to be able to accept private money to run elections?

As mentioned above, Wisconsin's 1900-plus municipalities have different needs when it comes to running elections. They all do things like set up polling places, buy voting equipment, recruit and train poll workers, staff early absentee in-person voting, and send out early absentee mail-in ballots, but they do it for markedly different sized cities, villages and towns.

Municipalities get local and federal funds to run elections. But some election clerks have said they’ve only received a fraction of the federal dollars they would need to run the 2024 presidential election. Ross says it’s a good question whether there will be increased supplemental sources of funding in Wisconsin now that millions won’t be available in private funding.

He says it's something the Wisconsin Legislature could address in the 2025-2027 budget cycle. “Every two years [the legislature] sets a budget. Will that be a debate in 2025? Possibly. So, yeah, it's an open question about what they're going to do, if they're going to address this dynamic now and put more [money towards this].”

And what about for 2024? We've got an August primary and a big November election coming up. Are there any options for clerks that aren't getting the money they need?

“Oh, the legislature’s adjourned,” says Ross. “I mean, they can always come back in special session. They ended the session in mid-March basically and went home to go campaign. So, if it's going to be addressed barring some kind of special move, it won't be addressed until 2025.”

Ross notes that the legislature just approved a big boost in shared revenue, which is aid to state and local governments. “So, there's more money coming in that regard,” he says. “I can't tell you community by community what the what's going to look like, but they've run them before. The thinking is and they'll figure out how to run them again. So, until there's proven need that wins over Republican lawmakers, I don't know if [municipalities are] going to get any more money this year for election administration.”

Only election officials designated by law can administer elections. Does this change anything?

The jury's still out, says Ross. Democrats feel that this change in the law means that some election officials’ hands will be tied in terms of who can help out with elections. Republicans have argued these fears are overblown, that it’s a red herring, says Ross.

“There’s been all kinds of worries from various local election officials that this means that somebody who's done this [election] task for me for years [can] no longer do it?” explains Ross. “We'll see. I’m not a lawyer, so I'm not going to try and tell you what the limits are going to be, but that's something to watch is where it goes.” Ross says this could mean the courts will weigh in, or there could be trailer legislation to clarify things.

Maayan is a WUWM news reporter.
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