After years of conspiracism, Assembly elections committee finds new spirit of bipartisanship

By: - June 6, 2023 3:50 pm

The Assembly Committee on Campaigns and Elections held a public hearing on four bills Tuesday. (Screenshot | WisEye)

In a stark change from previous iterations of the Wisconsin Assembly Committee on Campaigns and Elections, the body held a public hearing Tuesday on a number of bipartisan bills aimed at securing and improving the state’s election systems. 

In recent years, the committee was chaired by Rep. Janel Brandtjen (R-Menominee Falls), one of the Legislature’s most outspoken election deniers. Under her leadership, the committee was often the source of the Legislature’s most vicious partisanship and its best platform for a roster of conspiracists to spread false information about the state’s election administration and the results of the 2020 election. 

Brandtjen oversaw a committee that invited discredited right-wing activists misusing data to allege hundreds of thousands of fraudulent votes, attacked staff of the Wisconsin Elections Commission and frequently gave former Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman an opportunity to spread conspiracies about 2020 by inviting him to make reports on his widely derided review of the 2020 election. 

As the committee kicked off its hearing Tuesday, the new chair, Rep. Scott Krug (R-Nekoosa) said he wanted the body to work differently in this session, noting that Wisconsin’s elections are safe and secure, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be ways both parties can agree to improve it. 

Our process is good, our process works, but our process can be even better,” he said. “Our goal is to make sure we get started on things we can agree on, because nothing is going to change unless both sides agree and it can be signed by the governor. That’s the political reality we’re in.”

Krug added that if any of the committee’s members had an issue with the new direction, they could “talk to the leadership and ask them to reassign you. This committee is focused on solving problems.” 

The committee heard public testimony on four bills on Tuesday, with all but one earning support from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. 

The one bill that generated dissent was AB 299, which changes the process through which voters serving overseas in the military are able to request and cast absentee ballots. 

This process received significant attention in the last year after a deputy in the Milwaukee County Elections Commission falsely requested absentee ballots on behalf of several voters and had them sent to Brandtjen’s home address. The deputy, Kimberly Zapeta, is facing criminal charges for the incident. 

AB 299 is a bipartisan bill with co-sponsorship from several Milwaukee Democrats, including Reps. Sylvia Ortiz-Velez and LaKeshia Myers and Sen. Lena Taylor. 

Under current law, military voters — which includes members of the armed forces, civilian government workers stationed in other countries, members of the Peace Corps and Merchant Marines and any spouses or dependents living with them — don’t need to provide identification when requesting an absentee ballot. The bill would require these voters to provide their U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) identification numbers to their municipal clerk, which the clerk would then need to verify with the state Department of Military Affairs, before being granted a ballot. 

The bill also includes a provision that would allow people under the “military voters” umbrella to return their ballots through email, which is meant to shorten the delay that comes with using the paper mail system for people serving in war zones, on submarines or in other hard to reach parts of the world. 

A number of people testifying against the bill, including several former Peace Corps members, objected to its passage, noting that it would functionally disenfranchise voters who don’t get identification numbers from DOD. 

Other groups objected to the email return provision, noting that it’s impossible to ensure that such a method is secure. Email addresses can be faked, the messages themselves can be hacked and the method can undermine the secrecy of the voter’s ballot when the email is opened by the municipal clerk’s office. 

“Introducing electronic return into elections sows distrust,” said C. Jay Coles, a policy and advocacy associate at the nonpartisan organization Verified Voting. 

Acknowledging that she’d like to find a way to address the specific vulnerability that Zapeta’s absentee request exposed, Rep. Lisa Subeck (D-Madison) said she hopes the bill’s authors can find a way to do so without disenfranchising other segments of the electorate. 

“I think that what happened was a vulnerability was exposed,” Subeck said. “We don’t know how much or if it’s been exploited. It may or may not have ever been exploited prior to this. I am hopeful that we can find a way to address and close the vulnerability without disenfranchising other voters. And I don’t know what that end product might look like, I think it’s pretty clear today that we’re not there yet.” 

The other bills heard by the committee were largely supported by members of both parties. One bill, AB 298, which was also supported by the Milwaukee-area representatives, would prevent municipalities from closing more than half their polling places within 30 days of an election. 

The bill is targeted at preventing a recurrence of the spring 2020 election in which some of the state’s largest cities, including Milwaukee and Green Bay, closed most of their polling places in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. As the state government debated postponing the election during the still new emergency, the private spaces that often serve as polling locations, including senior centers and churches, decided not to open for voting. Milwaukee went from its usual 175 polling locations to just five, causing lines to wrap around the block. 

Another bill, AB 283, would require the Wisconsin Elections Commission to reimburse municipalities for the cost of holding a special election, which is often an unpredicted event and can blow up municipal and county clerks’ already tight annual budgets. 

The final bill, AB 282, would require any municipality that live streams the canvass of its election results to maintain an archive of that recording for at least 22 months. 

Krug said the possible advancement of the bills would happen at the committee’s next meeting in two weeks.


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Henry Redman
Henry Redman

Henry Redman is a staff reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner who focuses on covering Wisconsin's towns and rural areas. He previously covered crime and courts at the Daily Jefferson County Union. A lifelong Midwesterner, he was born in Cleveland, Ohio and graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a degree in journalism in May 2019.