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Wisconsin Republicans Propose Lengthy List of Voting Law Changes

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Wisconsin Republicans have began circulating a package of 10 bills they say are aimed at changing state election law. Democrats say there are trying to fight against fraud that doesn't exist.

This legislative cycle, Republicans around the country have proposed hundreds of bills that would restrict access to voting, taking aim at issues like absentee voting, voter registration and disability access. Wisconsin Republicans are part of that trend, releasing their plans as well.

Last Wednesday, Wisconsin Republicans started circulating a package of 10 bills that would, among other requested changes: stiffen the criteria to vote as indefinitely confined. Under current law, people who self-elect that they cannot get to the polls because of age, illness, infirmity or disability do not have to provide a photo ID to vote absentee.

The number of people in this group rose during the pandemic. Almost four times the voters in Wisconsin requested to cast absentee ballots as indefinitely confined in November 2020 than in the 2016 presidential election.

But even though under current law those electing to vote as indefinitely confined do not have to provide a photo ID to vote, the Wisconsin Elections Commission reports nearly 80% of those that voted that way have provided an acceptable photo ID to receive a ballot since 2016.

The new Republican-authored bill would require a voter to claim they are indefinitely confined under oath, and if the voter is under the age of 65, they would have to get the statement signed by a medical professional. A voter who falsely claimed to be indefinitely confined could be charged with a felony.

The proposals would also make it a felony for employees of a retirement home or residential care facility to help or encourage residents to vote or decide for whom to vote. It would require nursing homes to notify family members when special voting deputies are scheduled to come assist residents. One bill would prohibit cities from setting up drop boxes for people to return absentee ballots, unless the drop boxes are attached to the clerk’s office. 

Another bill would prevent people other than the voter, or if they’re incapacitated — their guardian or immediate family, from returning a completed absentee ballot. It exposes those outside these groups to felony prosecution if they deliver someone else’s ballot.

And under the proposed bills, election officials couldn’t add missing information, like an address or witness address, to a ballot envelope. 

Local officials would not be able to accept outside grant money under the bills, and if the Wisconsin Elections Commission receives grant money, it would have to distribute the money evenly to each Wisconsin municipality only as approved by the Joint Finance Committee. Violators could be prosecuted with a felony.

“Well, I think everybody that I've talked to fellow Republican certainly have gotten thousands of calls from constituents, really looking for some reforms in our election system here,” says GOP Sen. Duey Stroebel of Saukville, a co-sponsor of the bills.

Stroebel points to the hotly contested presidential race, the impacts of COVID-19 and decisions by the Wisconsin Election Commission, the state judicial system and some local election officials as the reason for these changes. 

He takes issue with the grants received by Wisconsin’s five largest cities ahead of the November election.

“You've got Mark Zuckerberg putting $6.3 million into the state of Wisconsin for a get out to vote effort,” says Stroebel. “Well, get out the vote efforts are great, but, unfortunately, he only gave money to Milwaukee, Madison, Racine, Kenosha and Green Bay, which are the largest Democratic strongholds in the state. I mean get out the vote, when it's targeted towards your group of constituents, that's not right, that’s not fair, that’s not consistent.”

In addition to expanding voter education and outreach, the grants to the five Wisconsin cities went towards recruiting poll workers, leasing and improving machines to tabulate absentee ballots, obtaining personal protective equipment (PPE) and early and curbside voting. Federal courts blocked challenges to the funding.

The bills would also:

Stroebel says all he and his fellow legislators are looking to do with these bills is to have a more transparent, fair and consistent system.
But some in the GOP have concerns about aspects of the package — and say they want the bills fine-tuned. GOP Sen. Kathy Bernier is the chair of the Senate Committee on Elections, Election Process Reform and Ethics.

“Because I am a previous county clerk, I like to dot my I's, cross my T's and make sure that I have other individuals such as the disability community in support of some of these changes that I have also been working with,” she says.

Bernier says oftentimes a bill is released and then there’s multiple amendments or a complete substitute amendment filed.

“And so we have that option. It isn't soup yet,” she says. “I would like to get the governor’s support on some of these changes, I think I can get there with the disability community support [for the indefinitely confined voters bill],” she says. 

She says that provision was not meant for people in a pandemic who were out shopping, ordering out food and campaigning.

Bernier adds that it’s pretty common for election laws to be reviewed and addressed every couple of years.

“In 2016, we had a problem with so called cybersecurity and we involved Homeland Security, supposed Russian interference,” says Bernier. “We had partnered with Homeland Security, we created more encryption, we required clerks to double authenticate when they're in the voter registration information system.”

But bills that make it in any way harder for people to vote are likely to be vetoed by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.

Rep. Mark Spreitzer of Beloit, the ranking Democrat on the Assembly Campaigns and Elections Committee, says Republicans are fighting fraud that doesn’t exist. 

“It really undermines the credibility of our elections when I see a co-sponsorship memo from Republican legislators for these bills that says they're concerned about voter confidence in the elections,” says Spreitzer. “My response to that is, that voter confidence has been undermined by these very Republican legislators telling lies to their own constituents, instead of correcting the record, and letting them know that Joe Biden won the state of Wisconsin in a free and fair election last November.”

The Wisconsin Elections Commission hasn’t come out with a report yet on instances of fraud during the November election, but from February 2019 to August 2020, there were a total of 15 instances of “suspected election fraud, irregularity or violation” in the state.

The Wisconsin State Journal was able to identify just 28 allegations of election fraud or other irregularities that were specific enough to attempt to verify. The newspaper could only partially substantiate one, involving 42 votes, out of nearly 3.3 million cast.

Democratic Sen. Kelda Roys of Madison, who sits on the Senate Elections Committee, says Wisconsin has a solid electoral system that was designed in large part by Republicans. 

“Since they controlled the state for 10 years, you know, had total control of state government for nearly a decade,” she says. “And, you know, it's only just recently because they weren't able to win in 2018 and 2020 that now they want to kind of go back and see if they can scrape off a few more Democratic votes.”

The bills will likely be debated in committees and on the Assembly and Senate floors. If Evers vetoes the bills, Republicans do not have a supermajority to be able to override the vetoes.

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