Referenda ask voters if election aid should be outlawed

Critics wield a new weapon against grant programs that bolstered pandemic voting

By: - September 29, 2022 6:30 am
A "vote here" sign outside of Washington High School in Milwaukee. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)

A "vote here" sign outside of Washington High School in Milwaukee on Nov. 3, 2020. Grants that helped communities administer the 2020 presidential election are now being targeted in ballot questions this November. (Isiah Holmes | Wisconsin Examiner)

Voters in four Wisconsin counties will be asked in November whether the state should ban private grants to help local communities with the cost of running elections. 

The advisory referenda, on the ballot in Waukesha, Price, Lincoln and Brown counties, follow an attempt by Republicans in the Legislature to outlaw outside funds for election administration — first through legislation, which Gov. Tony Evers vetoed, and subsequently through a proposed amendment to the state constitution.

They target private grants such as those that went to communities across Wisconsin in 2020 to help them manage the presidential election that November.

Although critics of the grants, primarily supporters of Donald Trump, contend they unfairly helped ensure a stronger voter turnout in heavily Democratic areas, voting rights advocates reject the claim.

Matt Rothschild, Wisconsin Democracy Campaign

Banning nonpartisan grants to bolster elections operations “is part and parcel of a well organized national effort by far-right activists to limit the ability of local election officials to do as much as they can to turn out the vote,” said Matt Rothschild, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. 

“Here in Wisconsin, a lot of the local election officials and offices are underfunded, and that’s one of the reasons why they’ve been taking some outside money,” he added. “But it’s also part of this campaign, looking back at 2020, to say that the outside money somehow threw the election to Joe Biden.”

Advisory referenda on banning grants are on the ballot in Brown, Lincoln, Price and Waukesha counties. In Brown, Lincoln and Price counties, the identically phrased ballot questions ask voters: “Should the State of Wisconsin prohibit election officials from soliciting or using private funds, technology or services from special interest groups, people, or other private entities for the purpose of administering elections and referendums?” 

Pandemic election support

In Waukesha County, the grant-related question is second of two on the November ballot. It is worded more broadly than in the other three counties, and it specifically asks voters about a prospective constitutional amendment: 

“Should the Wisconsin Legislature prepare and place on the statewide ballot a Constitutional Amendment prohibiting non-governmental entities and any individual other than election officials designated by law from funding, managing or performing any task in election administration?”

Waukesha County Board member Peter Wolff, who introduced the resolution for the referenda in August, did not respond to a telephone call or two email messages Wednesday from the Wisconsin Examiner.

At a meeting Aug. 15 when the county board executive committee voted 5-1 to send the resolution to the full board, however, Wolff told the other board members the measures were intended to restore trust among voters.

“Wolff said he is not an election denier but a large amount of people have lost trust in the election process and it’s important to have consistency to grow confidence,” according to the minutes from the committee meeting.

But advocates who oppose outlawing private support for election administration argue that it’s not the grants that have diminished trust, but rather the attempts to discredit them by people who haven’t accepted the 2020 election outcome.

The 2020 grants were critical to helping ensure a safe and smooth election that November, said Jay Heck, executive director of the Wisconsin chapter of Common Cause, which promotes voting rights and other good-government policies.

With the COVID-19 pandemic just beginning to unfold earlier in the year, local election clerks confronted unexpected challenges. Many veteran poll workers, often elderly people, dropped out to avoid being exposed to the novel coronavirus.

Voters wait in line to vote at Washington High School on April 7, 2020. (Isiah Holmes | Wisconsin Examiner)

In the April 2020 election, 111 municipalities told the Wisconsin Elections Commission that they had to close at least one polling station because they had too few poll workers, and another 126 reported having to consolidate polling stations in response to dwindling personnel. On that Election Day, the city of Milwaukee opened just five polling stations instead of its usual 180.

Looking ahead to the November presidential election, the national nonprofit Center for Tech and Civic Life made grants across the country to bolster local election infrastructure, including $8.8 million in Wisconsin, with $6.1 million going to five of Wisconsin’s largest cities — Milwaukee, Madison, Green Bay, Kenosha and Racine.

“That money went to help counties that didn’t have the resources” that they needed to ensure that voting was as safe and efficient, Heck said. “Any municipality or county or city or town that applied for it got it.”

The grants covered salaries for replacement poll workers. It also paid for personal protective equipment such as masks for poll workers and plastic dividers that were erected at many polling stations to help curb the spread of the virus, he added.

The claim that the money was used to “drive turnout of Democratic voters” is erroneous, Heck said. “The money wasn’t directed for turnout — the money was directed to supplement the budgets of local elections administrators.”

Trump supporters target assistance

Nevertheless, those grants, funded in part by donations totaling $350 million from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, have become a target for Trump supporters claiming the 2020 election outcome wasn’t legitimate. 

Even before the election, a lawsuit claiming that the grants were “bribery” disproportionately directed to Democratic-supporting cities was thrown out of federal court. The Wisconsin Elections Commission rebuffed a similar complaint and this June, a Dane County circuit court judge also rejected the bribery allegation.

Republican legislators have responded by trying to outlaw private grants in the future. A bill that passed both houses of the Legislature in February with only GOP votes included a provision to outlaw private grants for local election administration. Gov. Tony Evers vetoed the measure.

Gov. Tony Evers gives the 2022 State of the State address in the Capitol | Screenshot via YouTube
Gov. Tony Evers gives the 2022 State of the State address in the Capitol. (Screenshot | YouTube)

“In the past, local governments have used private grants for other projects, such as making voting spaces accessible to those with disabilities,” Evers wrote in his veto message. Election administrators are already required to run elections according to state and federal law, he observed. By prohibiting donations or grants to election agencies, this bill unnecessarily restricts the use of resources that may be needed to ensure elections are administered effectively.”

In the final days of the regular legislative session in February, however, lawmakers voted again on the issue, this time in the form of a joint resolution to amend the state constitution. 

That, too, passed along party lines, and is not subject to the governor’s veto. To become final, it will have to pass the Legislature again in the 2023-24 biennium, then go to voters in a referendum to ratify it. The Waukesha County advisory referendum’s grant-related language overlaps the language in the Legislature’s proposed amendment.

On a separate track, in Walworth County in April and Kenosha County in July, county boards have enacted ordinances that forbid their county clerks from accepting outside grant money. 

In the city of Kenosha, an alder brought a proposal to the city council in September that would impose such a ban for the city’s election administration. The council referred the proposal to the finance committee, where it was put on the agenda Sept. 19 and died when no committee member would make a formal motion to take it up.

Making election administration uniform

Along with Waukesha County’s grant-related referendum, the other ballot question in November asks voters: “Should the Wisconsin Legislature prepare and place on the statewide ballot a Constitutional Amendment requiring that election administration, access to ballots, and counting of ballots be nearly uniform as practicable?”

Common Cause Wisconsin Executive Director Jay Heck

Heck called that measure “an attempt to do what Republicans have been doing statewide, which is to try to ‘bring uniformity’ to state elections regardless of whether it was equitable.”

Ensuring uniformity was the justification that GOP lawmakers made when they enacted legislation in 2014 limiting early voting statewide to the two weeks before Election Day, he said. 

That was a marked reduction for some cities, which previously had opened up early voting as much as a month earlier. Proponents of limiting early voting to a shorter period argued that rural communities lacked the resources to staff early voting for so long a time, so that it was more fair to limit everyone. 

Heck said larger metro areas such as Milwaukee, Dane and Brown counties  “have different issues than other, smaller counties, and require more time” for early voting to work smoothly.

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Simply calling for uniformity “could be a race to the bottom,” said Rothschild of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.

“By making it uniform across the state, the clerk’s office with the least amount of money would be setting the lowest standard by which every other clerk’s office would have to administer their elections,” Rothschild said. “There should be flexibility for clerks to be able to make it as easy as possible for our citizens to register to vote and to vote.”

‘No one was expecting it’

In Waukesha County, voters have just begun hearing about the advisory referendum questions on their ballots in the last week, as absentee ballots began arriving in the mail.

Welcome to Waukesha sign
(ShannonPatrick17 | Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

“The biggest issue was that no one was expecting it,” said Waukesha resident Kristin Hansen, who is a Common Cause board member and is active in voting rights in the county. “A lot of us who are known as voting rights advocates are getting questions about it.”

The proposals got almost no attention when the county board took up the resolution over the summer to put them on the ballot. 

“I didn’t know anything about it until around the middle of August,” Hansen said, when county board member Larry Nelson brought the resolution to put the referendums on the ballot to her attention. 

Nelson was one of just two supervisors on the 25-member board to vote against the resolution in August. He told the Wisconsin Examiner that on policy grounds he thought they were unnecessary.

“There is no real evidence of election fraud or problems,” Nelson said. “All the recounts and challenges showed that the [2020] election was very well run.” 

But his primary argument in voting no was that he considered the ballot questions to be outside the scope of county government.

“I am not a fan of county boards doing resolutions or nonbinding referenda, because in my experience that has no impact on the state Legislature,” Nelson said. 

Hansen called the referendum on making election operations uniform “a bit of a Trojan horse” with implications that voters might not understand. “Equal and equitable are two different things,” she said.

She also believes blocking private help for election clerks could strand them if there is a future crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020.

“Suddenly these election clerks are trying to figure out how to have a safe election,” Hansen said. “If it wasn’t for those private foundations pitching in, I don’t know how they would have quickly gotten large allocations of cash to buy PPE and sanitizing equipment and all the other things they needed.” 

If there were a comparable situation in the future and election clerks were unable to turn to that sort of help, “God only knows what might happen.”

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Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn

Deputy Editor Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, health policy and related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.

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