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Fights over voting, counting absentee ballots dominate Assembly session

Shawn Johnson, WPR | Published on 2/24/2022



Counting ballots has come under increasing scrutiny in Wisconsin as a growing number of voters choose to vote absentee. Nearly 2 million Wisconsin residents voted absentee in 2020.

Even though the ballots might arrive at a clerk's office weeks before an election, poll workers can't begin counting them until Election Day. That can take longer in 39 cities, villages and towns that tally absentee ballots at a central count location instead of at a polling place.

That's especially true at Milwaukee's central count location, where the absentee ballot counts often aren't complete until the wee hours of the morning the day after Election Day. While this isn't a surprise, the middle-of-the-night results have been used by former President Donald Trump to falsely claim that the 2020 election was "stolen" from him.

While the idea of giving central count clerks an extra day to process ballots has enjoyed bipartisan support in the past, it appeared to be going nowhere this session, even as Republicans passed more than a dozen bills relating to elections at the end of the session.

There was finally movement Tuesday when the state Senate endorsed its version of the plan, but Assembly GOP leaders said it was unlikely to pass in their chamber.

On Monday, the Assembly took a roughly four-hour break from its public debate while Republican and Democratic legislators negotiated their own version of the bill privately. But after lawmakers emerged, only Republicans supported the final plan, and the blame game began.

"We had agreement," Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said. "It would have actually become law by going to Tony Evers' desk. The ones who stopped the Monday count from happening are the Assembly Democrats."

Vos said Republicans had negotiated with Democrats, saying the two sides had agreed on a deal in principle when Democrats walked away.

State Rep. Mark Spreitzer, D-Beloit, disputed that characterization, saying he wanted to get information from clerks on what they thought about the deal. Spreitzer said they weren't available to weigh in on such a last-minute negotiation.

"The speaker runs this place with an iron fist," Spreitzer said. "He knows how to get it done. He didn't want to get this done."

Vos and Spreitzer traded barbs for several minutes in the Assembly, with Vos accusing Spreitzer and Democrats of negotiating in bad faith and Spreitzer callings Vos a "partisan hack."

In the end, the bill that passed the Assembly would require central count locations to begin processing absentee ballots from 7 a.m. until 8 p.m. the day before the election. The bill also added new reporting requirements, mandating clerks post updates on the total number of absentee ballots and how many are counted throughout the day on Election Day.

Republicans also included a new timeline in the bill, requiring clerks to send absentee ballots no later than 21 days before an election, versus 47 days right now.

Evers' office didn't respond to an email Thursday night asking whether the governor would agree to the plan, which still needs to be approved by the Senate.

Senators are expected to return to the state Capitol for one more session day in early March before they adjourn for the rest of the year. Vos said Thursday was likely the Assembly's final session day.

Assembly Republicans also passed several other election bills Thursday, many of which Evers is likely to veto. Those bills fall into a few categories.

Absentee voting hurdles
While some of the bills that Republicans passed would make more technical changes to absentee voting, one measure in particular would add several new hurdles.

It would require people to send a separate request for an absentee ballot every election instead of a single request each year. Voters would also have to produce a copy of their photo ID each time, something election officials say can prove challenging for older residents requesting absentee ballots online.

If the voter wants someone outside their immediate family to return their absentee ballot, they'd have to designate it in writing and the person returning the ballot would have to be registered to vote.

State Rep. Sondy Pope, D-Mount Horeb, said it would make it difficult for her father, a 98-year-old World War II veteran, to continue voting. Pope said her dad still lives at home with the help of a housekeeper and hospice workers.

"His hearing is good, his mind is sharp, but he is no longer ambulatory," Pope said. "He's not going to sit down at some computer and ask for a ballot. He's not going to send a note asking for a ballot. He can't even get to the mailbox. But he wants to vote. And you're going to make this 98-year-old World War II veteran jump through hoops and hurdles. For what?"

The same bill would also ban state and local governments or private campaigns from sending voters unsolicited absentee ballot applications. In 2020, the bipartisan Wisconsin Elections Commission voted unanimously to mail paper applications for absentee ballots to 2.7 million residents.

State Rep. Rick Gundrum, R-Slinger, who sponsored the plan, said it would create a more uniform voting system.

"What this legislation does is bring absentee voting in line with in-person voting," Gundrum said. "It's not difficult for a voter to show up at the polls and provide their photo ID and it will not be difficult for those who apply for absentee ballots as well."

While most of the bill would add new requirements for voting absentee, it would also give people the option of returning ballots by UPS or FedEx instead of just the U.S. Postal Service.

Other GOP bills dealing with absentee voting would:

--Create a new process for nursing home residents to vote if their facility is closed to outside visitors the way many were during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Elections Commission voted to let nursing home employees help residents vote in 2020, a decision some Republicans contend broke the law. Commission members said they were preventing nursing home residents from being disenfranchised.
--Ban local clerks from filling in missing information on the witness certificate that accompanies every absentee ballot. Under the bill, the certificate would have to include both the voter's and witness' printed full name, address and signatures. It would reverse an Election Commission policy in place since 2016 that lets clerks fill in missing information on absentee ballot envelopes.
--Clarify the rules for who can be an "indefinitely confined" voter in Wisconsin after a record 216,000 people claimed that status in 2020, meaning they didn't have to produce a photo ID to vote. The bill won the support of Disability Rights Wisconsin and the League of Women Voters among other groups after it was amended by state Sen. Kathy Bernier, R-Chippewa Falls, to give voters additional ways to prove that they're indefinitely confined.

Constitutional amendments on photo ID, citizenship, election funding
GOP lawmakers also approved resolutions that could eventually make more lasting changes to Wisconsin elections by amending the state constitution.

--One would ban private election grants like those distributed in 2020 by the Center for Tech and Civic Life, an organization funded by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan.

--Another would write the state's voter ID requirement into the state constitution, making it harder to repeal than a state law.

--A third would ban noncitizens from voting in any elections in Wisconsin, something that isn't happening now.

Republican sponsors say the citizen requirement is meant to prevent what happened in New York City, where 800,000 legal noncitizens are allowed to vote in local elections.

"We need more immigrants, but we need them to come here legally," said Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna. "And we can't confer rights upon people that don't come here legally."

Democrats voted against the plan. State Rep. Gary Hebl, D-Sun Prairie, said it infringed on local control.

"We all know people who live and contribute to our local communities who may not be U.S. citizens," Hebl said. "Regardless, they live in our communities and are affected by what happens in our communities. Local governments may want to let these people choose how their local governments are run."

The resolutions on election grants and citizen voting already passed the Senate while the voter ID resolution hasn't. Senators could pass it next month.

All of the resolutions would have to pass again in the next legislative session and be approved by voters statewide before they could take effect. The soonest that could happen is March.

While Evers can veto bills, he can't veto resolutions.

Giving legislators more power
The Legislature, which has been controlled by Republicans for a decade, would gain new powers to oversee election funding and policies under additional GOP bills.

--One would require the Elections Commission to submit plans for all federal funds to the Legislature’s budget committee, giving lawmakers the power to block the funding. The same bill would also require all federal election guidance to be presented to the Legislature’s Joint Committee for the Review of Administrative Rules, where it could also be blocked.

--Another would require all Elections Commission guidance documents for local clerks to be presented to the Joint Committee for the Review of Administrative Rules on a weekly basis. If the committee decides that "guidance" is actually a "rule" (a regulation, standard, or statement that carries the force of law), committee members could block it.

State Rep. John Spiros, R-Marshfield, who sits on the Administrative Rules committee, said the bill was straightforward.

"If you're going to write a rule, come through us, write the rule, then get that guidance out," Spiros said. "Otherwise, we're going to take a look at the guidance and we're going to make a decision."

Democrats called the plans a power grab.

"This is one party wanting absolute control in order to continue to consolidate their own political power," said state Rep. Lisa Subeck, D-Madison.

Yet another bill would give the Legislature's budget committee the power to cut staff or funding for the Elections Commission or other state agencies if they don't comply with election laws. But it appeared their vote on that plan wouldn't matter. That's because it included a clause that would keep it from becoming law unless another election bill also passed. And that other bill didn't get a vote in the Assembly.

"This is not the first legislative mistake that the majority party has made by going so fast and seeking so little public input," said state Rep. Evan Goyke, D-Milwaukee. "In the rush to go home and start campaigning instead of showing up in this building and doing our job, you've just wasted all of our time."

Goyke said he appreciated Republicans "saving some veto pens."

Election fights continue
By all indications, Evers is likely to veto most, if not all, of the election bills that reach his desk, but they offer a glimpse at where Republicans stand in a year when they're hoping to defeat the governor and reclaim single-party control of state government.

The push also comes at a time when many in the GOP base are calling for more drastic moves, led by Trump, who continues to falsely assert he won the 2020 election.

One Assembly Republican, state Rep. Timothy Ramthun of Campbellsport, unsuccessfully pushed a resolution calling for the decertification of Wisconsin's election results and has since announced a campaign for governor. Ramthun appeared to leave Thursday's Assembly session early to catch a flight to the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando.

While Ramthun's entry into the governor's race has received attention lately, former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch formally launched her campaign in September and former U.S. Senate candidate Kevin Nicholson launched his bid earlier this year.

Vos downplayed the divisions in his own party Thursday, saying the measures Republicans passed were forward-looking.

"They don't relitigate the 2020 election as to whether Joe Biden is legitimately the president because he is the president today, period," Vos said. "What we focus on is the flaws in the 2020 election process."

Democrats disputed that characterization, accusing Republicans of fanning the flames of election conspiracists, all while trying to make it harder to vote.

"Republicans are trying to pull the wool over our eyes today," Assembly Minority Leader Greta Neubauer, D-Racine, said. "They are trying to make it seem like nothing is amiss. But this body cannot even agree on who won the presidential election."