The Senate elections committee held a public hearing Monday on a slate of Republican-authored bills to change election law.
In a public hearing of the Senate Committee on Elections, Election Reform and Ethics on Monday, a series of Republican-proposed bills to change state election law were debated as Republicans continued their effort to cast doubt on the validity of actions taken by election officials during the 2020 presidential election.
In the hearing, Republicans attacked residents of the state’s two largest cities, targeted grant funding municipalities received to help fund election administration and criticized the nonpartisan staff members of the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC). Members of the committee also heard a lot of testimony about how their proposals could affect voters with disabilities.
The bills cover a number of election-related issues and many of them were inspired by at least one of the several reviews of the 2020 election that have since been completed. The bills mostly stem from recommendations made in a report by the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau (LAB) as well as in complaints filed by the right-wing law firm Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.
The bills include measures that assert greater legislative control over the WEC, change the rules for the completion of absentee ballots, mandate how voter data is shared between other states and Wisconsin state agencies and prevent private funding in state elections.
Many of the voting rights activists, municipal officials and others who testified at the hearing said that they aren’t opposed to cleaning up or clarifying some of the state’s election laws, but that a number of these proposals actually make it harder for people to vote.
“I’m very aware we can approve, but we don’t have to make it more difficult,” said Debra Cronmiller, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin.
Many of the bills drew testimony from disability rights activists who were concerned that the changes would prevent people with disabilities from exercising their constitutional right to cast a ballot. These bills include provisions that change the process for who can assist people with filling out and returning absentee ballots, rewrite the rules for how someone can claim status as indefinitely confined and permanently receive absentee ballots and how people who live in nursing homes or residential care facilities are able to vote.
“Wisconsin should be proud that we are a leader in community-based, long-term care, but because we have so many people with significant needs such as cerebral palsy, [multiple sclerosis], muscular dystrophy, ALS, quadriplegia, who live in the community, rather than a nursing home, we need to recognize that they need some additional accommodation for voting,” said Barbara Beckert, director of the Milwaukee office of Disability Rights Wisconsin.
Sen. Kathy Bernier (R-Chippewa Falls), who introduced many of the bills and has been one of the few legislative Republicans in Wisconsin to speak out against conspiracy theories that the 2020 election was stolen, said she’d be open to amending some of the bills following Beckert’s testimony.
But several times during the hearing, Bernier snapped back at liberal-leaning speakers who called out the last year of Republican attacks on elections by saying the Republican conspiracy theories about 2020 are the same as Democratic allegations that Russia influenced the 2016 election that was won by Donald Trump.
“If you spoke out against the legitimate election of 2016, I would have more empathy for you right now because that went on for four solid years,” Bernier said to Matt Rothschild, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.
The hearing also included one of the Legislature’s most conservative members, Sen. Duey Stroebel (R-Saukville), repeatedly using the common Republican tactic of criticizing the state’s two largest — and most heavily Democratic — cities.
“Your job or the city’s job or any municipality’s job is to make sure that they have adequate resources to [administer elections],” Stroebel told Brenda Wood, a lobbyist for the City of Milwaukee. “And that means prioritize. And if you can’t prioritize, in the City of Milwaukee, enough money to do your elections properly for the citizens that you represent, I think you’re derelict in your duty.”
Wood responded by pointing out that the amount of revenue the state of Wisconsin shares with municipalities has not increased in years, an issue that has plunged Milwaukee into a deep budget hole.
Later, in an exchange with City of Madison Attorney Michael Haas — who previously served as the state’s chief election official — Stroebel said that Haas doesn’t understand Wisconsin because he lives in Madison and that people in other parts of the state are deeply concerned about issues that have been raised repeatedly by election conspiracists.
“I know you come from Madison, and that might be a different world,” Stroebel said. “But I and a lot of other people, we’re not Madison-centric. So we hear from a lot of different people that maybe you don’t hear from or don’t listen to. We hear from a lot of people that have concerns about the integrity, the consistency and the transparency of our elections. And some of them feel because of these things, they feel disenfranchised. And that’s what we’re here to talk about to try to fix. I think the polls show, there’s a lot of people that are very uncomfortable with the administration of our elections, and I don’t think they’re just dreaming it up, either. I think they look at loopholes. They look at gray areas. They look at sloppy election administration, and they look at illegal guidance from WEC [the Wisconsin Elections Commission].”
Haas pointed out that in his 12 years at the head of the WEC and its predecessor agency, the Government Accountability Board, he talked to municipal clerks and voters from all over the state every day.
Stroebel also spent a lot of time focused on grants that nearly 200 municipalities received from the Center for Tech and Civic Life, a nonprofit organization funded in part by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife. Even though cities of all sizes received money from the group, Republicans have focused on the grants that were given to the state’s five biggest cities — which did receive most of the money the organization gave to Wisconsin municipalities.
Stroebel, while asking questions about the bill and proposed constitutional amendment that would outlaw outside money being given to governments to help pay for election administration, repeatedly referred to the grants as “Zucker-bucks.”
Municipal officials who testified said that Republicans might be right that it’s inappropriate for outside organizations to give money for election administration, but if that’s the case then the state needs to do a better job fully funding the costs paid by counties and municipalities to hold elections.
“We should not depend on outside influences to have grants to offer as incentives to get the outside groups to come in and be a part of their election process,” Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills). “I would argue … the state should have more of a responsibility. I think we should have more of a separate focus on elections and look at what is needed to run integrity in our election system. And having it as fair and accessible and honest as it possibly can. I think we as a state have to look at what we need as a state and how can we fund these efforts?”
Haas, who spoke for nearly 30 minutes about his opposition to the bills, said that Republicans are operating with the wrong framework as they look to change election laws.
“In my opinion, these bills amounted to somewhat of a war on voters, and creating more bureaucracy for clerks,” he said. “So I need to ask the sponsors and supporters of these bills: Where’s your trust in voters and the election process that put you yourself in office? We would encourage the Legislature to take a more voter-centric approach to election legislation.”
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