Republicans in Wisconsin try to curb our freedom to vote

February 28, 2022 6:00 am
"No vote for you" sign

Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign

Almost all of the bills that Republicans in the Wisconsin Legislature rammed through in the last week would have the effect of curbing our freedom to vote.Two bills would make voting by absentee ballot more difficult for all voters in Wisconsin. SB 939 would prohibit the Wisconsin Elections Commission or any local clerk from sending out absentee ballot applications, en masse, to registered voters, as was prudently done during the pandemic. Our ability to exercise our freedom to vote by mail should not be needlessly curtailed by this blanket prohibition.

I can understand that some legislators don’t want a clerk in one locale to do this when a clerk in another locale isn’t doing the same thing. But why shouldn’t the Elections Commission be allowed to do this uniformly? If we want more people to be able to exercise their freedom to vote in our democracy, sending everyone an absentee ballot application makes sense, in general. And in specific, it makes a whole lot of sense during a pandemic. But this bill would nix both those options.

SB 935 would render an absentee ballot null and void for the pettiest of reasons. For instance, if I’m a witness for the absentee voter and I print my name, and I sign my name, and I put Madison, WI, down as my residence but I neglect to put my street down, should the voter I’m witnessing be disqualified because of that omission? The bill says yes, and that seems ridiculous to me. 

Even requiring a witness seems like a stretch to me, since the voter already is swearing about his or her identity. Now to make the witness have to fill out everything just right or the voter’s ballot is disqualified just adds another way to toss a perfectly good ballot into the waste basket. 

What’s more, SB 935 would make voting by absentee ballot especially more difficult for those in residential care facilities or retirement homes. SB 935 would paternalistically require the notification of relatives of residents in long-term care facilities or retirement homes as to when special voting deputies are going to be there. Residents don’t need their relatives looking over their shoulders when they’re voting. This is an invasion of their privacy. Unless they have a legal guardian, residents should not have their freedom to vote interfered with in this obnoxious manner. What if they don’t get along with “the relatives for whom the home or facility has contact information”? What business is it of the relatives, seriously?

SB 935 would also needlessly prohibit a personal care voting assistant from helping any resident of a residential care facility or qualified retirement home to register to vote. If the personal care voting assistant is there to help the resident fill out an absentee ballot, why can’t the assistant help the resident register to vote? That distinction makes no sense. Plus, nursing homes that receive Medicare or Medicaid funding are required to support the residents’ right to vote. That should include supporting residents who want to register to vote.

And several of these bills would hog-tie the Wisconsin Elections Commission.

SB 940 would allow the Joint Finance Committee to gouge the staff or the funds of the Elections Commission if Joint Finance, on its own, says that the Elections Commission or the Department of Transportation or the Department of Corrections or the Department of Health Services failed to comply with any election law. That would give Joint Finance a huge whip over the heads of the Elections Commission, with no decent check on that unilateral power.

SB 941 would give the Joint Finance Committee and the Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules the authority to block federal funds and federal guidance, which will make it very difficult for the Commission to do its job. It’s also of dubious constitutionality: States aren’t allowed to disregard federal guidance on the conduct of federal elections, for instance.

SB 941 would also inject hyper-partisanship at the staff level by mandating that each major political party gets its own legal counsel on the staff of the Wisconsin Elections Commission. The last thing we need is more partisan haggling at the Wisconsin Elections Commission. And why shouldn’t the Green Party or the Libertarian Party have legal counsel on staff if the other parties get to? That’s discrimination.

SB 943 would require the Elections Commission to be nit-picked and hyper-monitored by the Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules. Every week, the Elections Commission would have to give to JCRAR “all documents and communications from the commission that the commission issued in the previous week that are applicable to municipal clerks generally and qualify as guidance documents.” This would amount to death by a thousand cuts for the Wisconsin Elections Commission.

There was one bill, SB 937, that was actually OK. Authored by Sen. Kathy Bernier, with a lot of input from disability rights activists, it would have clarified the status of “indefinitely confined” voters and offered some protections for them. But no Democrats would back it, preferring to take a unified stance against all the bills.

I actually think that was a mistake, morally and politically.

Morally, because the bill, while certainly not perfect, would have made some necessary improvements for persons with disabilities.

Politically, because it would have behooved Democrats to show that they were willing to work in a bipartisan manner when given a decent bill to sign.

Given the hyper-partisan climate in the Legislature, that might have been too much to ask.

But Gov. Evers could demonstrate some bipartisanship by signing SB 937 and then vetoing all the others, which are far, far worse.


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Matt Rothschild
Matt Rothschild

Prior to joining the Democracy Campaign at the start of 2015, Matt worked at The Progressive magazine for 32 years. For most of those, he was the editor and publisher of The Progressive.