‘Reforming’ Wisconsin elections: from jail time to more voting time

Gov. Evers and GOP senators offer starkly different plans and penalties

Sign on pavement: Notice no electioneering beyond this point
Early Voting by Ted Eytan via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

The long promised — or threatened, depending on your views — spate of election bills that would make it harder to vote in Wisconsin was unveiled by Republicans on Monday. Speaker Robin Vos had labeled such restrictive measures among his top priorities for the session, although these came from the Senate and Vos told reporters he had not been consulted.

In sharp contrast, the budget Gov. Tony Evers presented last week also contained measures that would affect voting — including a provision requiring the Department of Motor Vehicles to automatically update voter addresses with drivers’ license renewals.  The impact of his voting reform plans drew praise from the Wisconsin Voting Rights Coalition, a group made up of clean-government advocates.

“The right to vote is a fundamental principle of our democracy. When more Americans can participate in our elections, the outcome better reflects who we are as a country,” said Debra Cronmiller, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, a member of the coalition. “Fighting for access for all voters, including automatic voter registration, will ensure that all Wisconsinites’ votes can be cast and will be counted.”

Headshot of Sen. Alberta Darling
Sen. Alberta Darling

The GOP Senate bills authored by Sen. Duey Stroebel (R-Saukville) and Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) would make it more difficult to vote absentee as well as stopping electronic voter registration. Other bills would prohibit private donations to help administer elections, forbid workers in residential care facilities and retirement homes from any assistance or mention of voting and make it difficult for voters with a disability or others who are “indefinitely confined” to receive absentee ballots.

Additional GOP bills came out Wednesday that would prohibit clerks from fixing even minor defects on ballots, including witness signatures; permit only one dropbox for ballots per municipality; require a separate application for an absentee ballot not included in the envelope with the ballot and impose strict limits on who can drop off an absentee ballot. Other bills give greater access to election observers and — one that will likely be bipartisan — to have the Elections Commission publish meeting minutes on its website.

Sen. Duey Stroebel headshot
Sen. Duey Stroebel

Vos laid out his take on what both sides label “elections reforms” and why he thinks they are needed on the first day of session in January.

“Wisconsin also learned over the last year that we must restore confidence in the electoral process,” said Vos. “We saw repeated attempts by outside groups to try to change Wisconsin election laws, through the courts, using the pandemic as their excuse. In some cases we saw election officials simply ignore the law, hoping to give an electoral benefit to their preferred candidate.”

A day later he told reporters — using a rhetorical argument state and federal Republicans set up by falsely discounting the results of November’s free and fair election to create doubt —  he did not want to get into a discussion “of whether or not the election is valid” but added, “We have to improve the process when literally hundreds of thousands of people in Wisconsin doubt that the election was held in a way that didn’t have substantial charges of fraud.”

After Republican officials complained loudly and frequently that the election was fraudulent, polls show many members of the public believed them despite proof to the contrary.

The memos by Stroebel, Darling and other authors of the GOP bills echo that circular argument offered by Vos. They state, “Faith in elections is the foundation of our legitimacy as a government and is a prerequisite for the peaceful transfer of power.”

The deadly riot and attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 was driven by members of the mob seeking to overturn the fair election because they had been falsely told by then-President Donald Trump (echoed by Wisconsin Republican leaders) that the results were suspect. That message continues to be cited in the GOP memos justifying their bills.

Democrats emphasize that Darling and Stroebel’s bills were drafted in the wake of Republicans losing all five statewide offices, including the defeat of former Gov. Scott Walker to Evers in 2018, and losing the state to President Joe Biden. Each of the bills would make it more difficult to vote in Wisconsin, resulting in voter suppression, according to Democrats on the Assembly elections committee, who put out a joint statement labeling them as “anti-voter bills.” 

“Republicans continued their attack on voter rights and sunk further into conspiracy theories rather than admitting that Donald Trump lost in a free and fair election,” wrote Reps. Mark Spreitzer (D-Beloit), Lisa Subeck (D-Madison) and Jodi Emerson (D-Eau Claire).

“The bills are a full-on assault on our elections and the ability for Wisconsinites to vote,” they said in a statement. “While this bill package purports to improve elections, all it does is restrict the ability to vote because of the Republican Party’s electoral loss.”

Emerson, Subeck and Spreitzer refuted Republicans claims about fraud in the November elections citing audits, recounts, official canvasses and dozens of court cases that “resoundingly concluded our elections were safe, secure and sound.”

They concluded: “When Republicans first began their sham hearings about the November 2020 election, it was clear that the real problem was not the system, but an outcome that they did not like.”

Election ‘criminals’ filling jails?

The bills include harsh penalties for violating the voting barriers they would erect, creating — as several of the GOP memos on these measures state — a new crime. 

“A person who violates this prohibition is guilty of a Class I felony. Because this bill creates a new crime or revises a penalty for an existing crime, the Joint Review Committee on Criminal Penalties may be requested to prepare a report,” reads the measure on absentee ballots.

Accepting private donations to help administer a specific election might carry a prison sentence. A violator may be “guilty of a Class I felony, the penalty for which is a fine not to exceed $10,000 or imprisonment not to exceed three years and six months, or both.” And in a time where municipalities have struggled to find poll workers, it severely restricts who may fill those duties, prohibiting employees of campaigns, political parties, issue advocacy groups and more from that work.

And here is a chilling sentence for nursing home employees who talk to a resident about an absentee ballot or encourage voting, even if they say nothing about any particular candidate: “The bill also provides that an employee of a qualified retirement home or residential care facility who influences an occupant of the home or facility to apply for or not apply for an absentee ballot or cast or refrain from casting a ballot or influences an occupant’s decision for whom to cast a ballot is guilty of the Class I felony.”

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Finally, a bill drawing strong objections from advocates for people with disabilities adds many hoops for anyone who votes absentee because they do not have the physical ability to vote at the polls. These “indefinitely confined” individuals would have to get a doctor or other medical professional to verify their condition if they are under age 65 and have to renew that proof every two years. It also puts a burden on municipal clerks to remove people from such lists. And the Wisconsin Elections Commission is required to purge anyone who voted in 2020 as indefinitely confined from that list and require them to reapply. The bill also states that a pandemic is not a reason to claim indefinite confinement.

Prior to these bills, last month, Assembly Republicans introduced a bill to reallocate the state’s electoral votes so that it would be done primarily by gerrymandered Congressional districts, which would have handed Wisconsin’s votes to Donald Trump even though Biden won the state.

Evers on elections

In contrast to the GOP bills, Evers’ budget contains measures designed to encourage more people to vote and make it easier to participate in elections.

They include:

  • Directing the Department of Transportation to implement automatic voter registration. The department would use data the state government already collects to streamline voter records, sharing information such as an updated address given when renewing a drivers license with the Wisconsin Elections Commission.
  • Making sure that UW System student IDs and state technical schools’ identifications comply with voter ID requirements, and drop a requirement students must have another document proving enrollment.
  • Permitting municipalities to expand the time frame and hours allotted for in-person, early absentee voting beyond the two-week limit placed on it by Republicans.
  • Requiring polling stations to post notices of voters’ rights, including eligibility, review of a sample ballot before voting, the right to keep their ballot secret, the right to receive assistance if they are disabled and the right to vote so long as they are in line when the polls close. 
  • Permitting municipal and county clerks to begin counting absentee ballots on the Monday prior to election day, which could prevent confusing, late outcomes on election night. Such a change has been proposed by both Republican and Democratic legislators and could likely be bipartisan. 

And, while not a direct change to how elections are run, Evers proposed requiring that the nonpartisan Fair Maps Commission be the entity responsible for drawing redistricting boundaries. This would stand to dramatically alter election results as the current boundaries — drawn by the Republican Legislature and approved by former Gov. Scott Walker — have been cited as among the worst gerrymandered maps in the country.

Gov. Tony Evers gives his State of the State speech 1/12/21 (screenshot via YouTube)
Gov. Tony Evers 1/12/21 (screenshot via YouTube)

“This pandemic has shown us the lengths Wisconsin voters are willing to go to cast a ballot and make their voices heard, but it doesn’t have to be this hard,” said Nicole Safar, executive director of the progressive group, A Better Wisconsin Together. “Governor Evers’ budget takes huge strides towards modernizing our elections and giving all Wisconsinites a chance to pick their leaders, and the future they want.” 

Non-partisan government transparency advocates also praised Evers’ budget for promoting democracy and fair elections. 

“Recognizing how difficult is has been to advance any positive, proactive policies related to women’s health, safety and economic security in Wisconsin, we are extremely grateful that the Governor’s Budget takes important steps to mitigate the negative impacts of past voter suppression efforts and gerrymandering in our state,” wrote Women’s Health Alliance founder and director Sara Finger in a memo on the budget.  “The Governor’s Budget makes necessary recommendations to ensure voters can be heard through the ballot and through the legislative session.”

Melanie Conklin
Melanie Conklin is proud to be a native of the state of Wisconsin, which gave humankind the typewriter, progressivism and deep-fried cheese curds. Her several decades in journalism include political beats and columns at Isthmus newspaper, the Wisconsin State Journal and other publications. When not an ink-stained wretch, she served time inside state, local and federal government in communications. She is excited to be back at the craft of journalism as Deputy Editor of the Wisconsin Examiner. It’s what she’s loved ever since getting her master’s degree in journalism from the UW-Madison. Her family includes one husband, two kids, four dogs and five (or more) chinchillas.