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Wisconsin's presidential primary and spring general election is April 2, 2024. Here's a guide on Milwaukee-area candidates and information on how to vote.

What to know about the constitutional amendments on the April 2 ballot

voters in masks wait in line outside a sign that says VOTE HERE CITY OF MILWAUKEE
Morry Gash
Voters line up at Riverside High School for Wisconsin's primary election Tuesday April 7, 2020, in Milwaukee. The April 2024 ballot measures stem from 2020 election controversies.

In the April 2 election, Wisconsinites will vote on two constitutional amendments related to how elections are run. The first measure would make it unconstitutional to use private funds to administer elections, while the second would allow only election officials designated by law to administer elections. The questions were added to the ballot by Republican lawmakers, stemming from post-2020 concerns about election administration.

These are statewide binding referendums. If voters approve them, these amendments will be added to the state constitution; they are not subject to the governor's approval.

What are the questions?

These two questions will appear on ballots across the state. You can preview the rest of your ballot at myvote.wi.gov.

The first proposed constitutional amendment has to do with whether private funds can be used to help administer elections.

Question 1: Use of private funds in election administration. Shall section 7(1) of Article III of the constitution be created to provide that private donations and grants may not be applied for, accepted, expended, or used in connection with the conduct of any primary, election, or referendum?

Voting yes means you support adding an amendment to the constitution that prohibits the use of private funds in election administration.

Voting no means you oppose such an amendment.

The second constitutional amendment up for a vote is about who can administer elections.

Question 2: Election officials. Shall section 7(2) of Article III of the constitution be created to provide that only election officials designated by law may perform tasks in the conduct of primaries, elections, and referendums?

Voting yes means you support adding an amendment to the constitution that allows only election officials designated by law to administer elections.

Voting no means you oppose such an amendment.

UW-La Crosse political science professor Anthony Chergosky breaks down the constitutional amendments.

How did we get here?

The first question stems from a 2020 election controversy, in which the Center for Tech and Civic Life, a Chicago-based nonpartisan nonprofit, issued grants that were funded by a major gift from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan. The grants were supposed to help municipalities nationwide run a presidential election in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. They paid for things like hazard pay, personal protective equipment (PPE) and voting machines, as well as a voting van in Racine and ballot drop boxes, which both met legal challenges.

Around $10 million of the so-called “Zuckerbucks” went to more than 200 Wisconsin municipalities. Every town that applied received some money, including some Republican-leaning areas. But most of it — $8.8 million — went to the state’s five biggest cities, which lean Democratic. That fueled claims that the funds swayed the election and, more broadly, could set a precedent allowing the ultra-rich to interfere with election outcomes.

Multiple courts and the Wisconsin Elections Commission since found that the funds were legal.

Republicans like Wisconsin Assembly Majority Leader Tyler August (R-Lake Geneva) mobilized against private money in elections. He co-authored a proposal to make the practice unconstitutional.

“Private funds, no matter if they are from Facebook or the Koch brothers or wherever, should never be used to administer our elections in this state,” August said in a hearing last October.

The second question is also rooted in the 2020 election. A consultant helped Green Bay officials on election night, stoking Republican concerns over improper influence.

Two years ago, the Republican-controlled Wisconsin Legislature passed a bill to ban the use of private funds in elections. Governor Tony Evers, a Democrat, vetoed it.

So Republicans turned to a constitutional amendment, which bypasses Evers’ veto. Such proposals must pass in two back-to-back legislative sessions. No Democratic lawmakers voted in favor of the resolution. Now, the question goes to voters.

“These resolutions aim to ensure that all communities, regardless of their political affiliations, are provided with a level playing field in the administration of Wisconsin’s elections,” said Kyle Koenen, policy director of the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, in a testimony endorsing the amendments.

After false claims of election fraud in 2020, Republicans lawmakers have been under pressure to take action on election integrity.

“I suspect that overall, these two constitutional amendments are trying to deliver to the Republican base what might be perceived as a ‘win,’ as evidence that the party is doing something on the issue of election integrity,” said Anthony Chergosky, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.

With a Biden-Trump rematch already confirmed for November, and no big headliner on the April ballot otherwise, Chergosky is skeptical that turnout for the spring election will be high. That means a small slice of Wisconsinites might end up deciding on these changes to the Constitution.

Who opposes the measures? Why?

The two measures are opposed by groups like the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin, All Voting Is Local and the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin.

Opponents of the first proposed amendment say elections are chronically underfunded. Outside funding has been a lifeline for elections offices; the constitutional change would limit their options. Without it, critics warn that voters could see fewer polling places, longer lines and later results on election night.

“In the best of worlds, the Legislature should fund, adequately, the needs of election clerks all over the state to be able to conduct elections fairly,” said Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause Wisconsin, a nonpartisan citizen reform group that is encouraging voters to say no to both measures. “In the absence of that, certainly funding ought to be available so that we can have elections that are adequately staffed, administered and safely conducted.”

In a hearing last October, state Sen. Mark Spreitzer (D-Beloit), who serves on the Senate's elections committee, noted that Republicans struck funding to election clerks from the governor’s proposed budget.

The ACLU of Wisconsin also notes that as written, the amendment could “prevent election officials from using polling places in non-public buildings or even using tables, chairs, electrical outlets, or any other equipment or facilities present at polling places that are privately owned,” like churches and community centers.

As for the question regarding election staffing, critics point out that Wisconsin laws already say only election officials can conduct elections. It’s unclear how the amendment would change election administration practically, besides enshrining the rule in the constitution. They also say the language is vague. Without definitions for who an “election official” is or what “tasks” they’re referring to, there could be unintended consequences.

“In Madison, our clerk gave me a list of 15 other city agencies that are involved in elections, from public works to the police department, engineering, finance, IT,” said Madison city attorney Michael Haas in a recent talk with the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin. “The question would be, are these agencies prohibited from assisting the clerk’s office?”

Big picture, Heck said deciding public policy through constitutional amendments isn’t good governance.

“We do have a legislative process, we have a governor,” Heck said. “What is really necessary, particularly for election administration, is to have a bipartisan consensus. So that they can come to an agreement that benefits all voters.”

How do constitutional amendments get on the ballot?

The Legislature must approve a proposed amendment in two consecutive sessions; last fall was the second round. This proposal passed along party lines, winning no votes from Democratic lawmakers.

Then, a majority of voters must approve the changes.

This process is not subject to the governor’s veto, “which makes it pretty appealing for Republicans who control both chambers of the state Legislature,” Chergosky said.

What's happened in other states?

Since the 2020 election, 27 states have banned or restricted the use of private or philanthropic funding to run elections. Of those, 21 states had Republican control of the governorship and both branches of the state legislature when these laws were enacted.

Your feedback will help inform our election coverage.

Lina is a WUWM news reporter.
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