Legislature Passes Absentee Voting Restrictions

Absentee ballots are stored in box Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, at Milwaukee’s Central Count facility. Angela Major/WPR

Absentee ballots are stored in box Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, at Milwaukee’s Central Count facility. Angela Major/WPR

The state Assembly took up several election bills Tuesday, including one that could change the process for absentee ballots in Wisconsin.

Voters are currently required to request an absentee ballot in writing, but there are no standard guidelines on what the request should look like.

On Tuesday, the Assembly voted in favor of a bill that would task the Wisconsin Elections Commission with issuing application guidelines and require all absentee voters to include a copy of their ID with every written ballot request.

It would also require that applications be separate documents from absentee ballot envelopes, which are currently used as de facto written ballot requests, and prevent local clerks or the Elections Commission from sending absentee ballots to anyone who hasn’t requested one.

Rep. Rick Gundrum, R-Slinger, said more uniform voting laws will make it easier for Wisconsinites to vote, an argument disputed by Democrats.

“This is common sense legislation that everyone can understand,” Gundrum said during a news conference before the Assembly session.

He also suggested the bill could help strengthen public faith in the elections process, a point opposed by Rep. Gary Hebl, D-Sun Prairie.

“These (laws) don’t strengthen anything except your ability to win elections,” Hebl told his Republican colleagues.

Democrats argued that the legislation could disenfranchise people who are unable to vote in person or resubmit their photo ID each time they request an absentee ballot. The measure passed along party lines.

The legislation is part of a package introduced by Republican senators in response to the 2020 presidential election, which has been criticized by members of the GOP. It passed the Senate earlier this month, as did a bill that would limit the way absentee ballots can be returned.

That bill could put an end to drives like “Democracy in the Park,” an initiative organized by Madison’s city clerk in 2020, which allowed voters to return their ballots at outdoor events. The new legislation would require absentee ballots to be collected by the clerk or their staff at one site nearby their office within 14 days of the election. The Assembly will tackle it Tuesday.

The Assembly also passed another measure that’s already made it through the Senate, requiring nursing homes to notify the family of residents in advance of visits from voting assistants, and make it a felony for nursing home staff to attempt to influence the way residents vote should they be tasked with serving as a voting assistant during a future pandemic.

Sponsor Rep. Cindi Duchow, R-Town of Delafield, argued that the legislation protects elderly voters who live in long-term care settings, while the bill was opposed by Democrats in the Legislature.

The Assembly also voted in favor of imposing strict penalties — up to $10,000 and three years in prison — for elections officials who violate certain rules. They include intentionally failing to report election fraud, causing a valid vote to be rejected or causing an invalid vote to be counted.

In a news conference before the session, Rep. Mark Spreitzer, D-Beloit, said Republicans sowed doubts after the 2020 presidential election, with former President Donald Trump making unsupported claims of widespread fraud. With these bills, he argued, Republicans are aiming to solve problems that don’t really exist.

Wisconsin isn’t the only state that’s seen a Republican-led push for stricter voting laws this year. New election laws in Georgia led Major League Baseball to move its All-Star Game from Atlanta. Arizona, Florida and other states have also passed laws that could deter voters from casting ballots in future elections.

Wisconsin lawmakers will also consider a GOP bill that would require election observers to wear a badge displaying their name and organization, if applicable, and impose penalties for observers who interfere with voters or refuse to leave when asked.

The Assembly also approved a bill Tuesday requiring elections clerks to retain any recordings of election night canvassing for at least 22 months. Rep. Shae Sortwell, R-Two Rivers, said the legislation is in direct response to complaints following Green Bay’s November 2020 election. The city livestreamed its ballot counting but didn’t retain the video as it wasn’t required to do so by state law.

Rep. Kristina Shelton, D-Green Bay, said the legislation could prevent municipalities from broadcasting their election results if it doesn’t come with additional funding. She noted Green Bay’s video was deleted by YouTube, where it was streamed, because it’s the site’s policy to delete videos longer than 12 hours.

The measure already passed the state Senate on a voice vote.

Gov. Tony Evers has the power to veto these bills if they successfully move through the Legislature. Evers has indicated he will veto any plans that make it harder to vote.

Assembly Will Consider Budget Items, Including Loan To Purchase Verso Paper Mill

In addition Tuesday, the Assembly will work through a hefty agenda that includes a handful of bills that would earmark federal funding for specific state projects.

Those include a bill that would spend $50 million in federal money to set up a loan to help Consolidated Cooperative purchase the Verso paper mill in Wisconsin Rapids.

The mill closed before it suffered damage from a fire earlier this year. Introduced by Rep. Scott Krug, R-Nekoosa, the bill would use COVID-19 relief money to help the co-op finance the purchase of the defunct facility under terms set forth by the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.

Evers had previously proposed funding the loan by accepting $1.6 billion in federal funding for an expansion of BadgerCare, an idea GOP lawmakers rejected.

The Assembly took up other legislation on local spending, including a proposal that would allocate $5 million in funds from the federal American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 to help Green Bay move the large coal piles that have long sat along the Fox River near the city’s downtown. The plan received some bipartisan support in the Assembly, passing 62-36.

Republican and Democratic representatives from the Green Bay area spoke in favor of the bill. Rep. David Steffen, R-Green Bay, called the project a Halley’s comet of economic development opportunity. The bill was referred to the Senate.

Another proposal would direct money from the American Rescue Plan Act as grants to Memorial Hospital of Lafayette County and the city of Reedsburg’s community center. Under a different bill, the State Historical Society could also receive federal funds to keep historical sites open this summer.

Legislature Approves Plan To Reduce Funding For Municipalities That Cut Police Spending

More than a year after the murder of George Floyd, the Assembly passed a bill that appears to be a direct response to calls from activists to defund law enforcement.

Under the proposal, any municipality that reduces its annual budget for growing or maintaining its police force will have its municipal aid payment decreased by the same amount. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. John Spiros, R-Marshfield, notes Milwaukee has recently cut more than a hundred police officers, and argues it’s not a coincidence that homicides have increased there.

The bill passed the Republican-led Senate on party lines earlier this month. Before the Assembly session, Spreitzer — a former city councilor — said it shouldn’t be up to state legislators to meddle with municipal budgets. Republican lawmakers should invest more in funding municipalities if they want communities to dedicate money to law enforcement, he said.

The bill will go to Evers, who’s come out against large cuts to police spending.

Lawmakers Could Vote On A Slew Of Other Bills

The Assembly agenda Tuesday also includes several other pieces of legislation.

Lawmakers passed a plan that will lower the age to receive a Wisconsin driver’s permit by six months, to 15 years old. The bill will be sent to Evers for his signature.

The assembly also passed a bill requiring government agencies and health care providers to enclose any mailings that could indicate a person’s vaccination status. It will go to the Senate next. Tuesday’s vote comes after the Assembly decided last week to ban so-called vaccine passports in Wisconsin — a move that’s likely to be vetoed by Evers.

The Assembly could also vote to establish a grant program, administered by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, to aid qualifying municipalities impacted by pollution from PFAS chemicals.

The Assembly also passed a proposal that could prohibit anyone from labeling food as meat unless it’s “derived from an edible part of the flesh of an animal or any part of an insect.” Another bill passed Tuesday would similarly prevent makers of non-dairy milk products from labeling their items as milk. The bills received bipartisan support, before being sent to the Senate.

And Republican lawmakers approved legislation to temporarily change the rules for where transfer students can play school sports due to the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on schools. It would reverse a rule from the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association that requires students to wait a year to play high school sports after transferring to a new school, unless their parents have moved. The bill was referred to the Senate.

Wisconsin Legislature Passes Absentee Voting Restrictions was originally published by Wisconsin Public Radio.

Legislature Passes Absentee Voting Restrictions