The Assembly and Senate elections committees held a joint hearing Tuesday on a number of constitutional amendments making election rules in the state stricter. (Screenshot | WisEye)
The Wisconsin Assembly and Senate committees on elections held a joint public hearing Tuesday on a number of resolutions to amend the state Constitution. The resolutions address some of Wisconsin Republicans’ most common allegations about election administration and its vulnerability to fraud.
The resolutions, if adopted, would make it illegal for municipalities to use private money to pay for election-related costs, add further protections against non-citizens voting and entrench the state’s strict voter ID requirements.
Throughout the legislative session, the Assembly elections committee has been a rare source of bipartisanship while the Senate committee has frequently indulged unfounded conspiracy theories about voter fraud. At the hearing Tuesday, the Senate’s climate largely won out, with the committee’s chair, Sen. Dan Knodl (R-Germantown) arguing with other lawmakers and members of the public about their views, as 2020 election conspiracy theorists were favorably questioned by lawmakers.
In an exchange with Jamie Lynn Crofts, policy director for Wisconsin Voices, who was testifying against a resolution that would codify the state’s voter ID law into the state Constitution, Knodl asked if the state’s election slogan should be “easy to vote, hard to cheat or should we be looking at a different angle, easy to vote, easy to cheat?”
Crofts responded that it can be hard to cheat in elections without having one of the strictest voter ID laws in the country.
The hearing began with debate on the constitutional amendment that would prevent municipalities from accepting private money to fund election administration. The proposal stems from Republican complaints of “Zuckerbucks” — the election grants hundreds of municipalities across the state received from a group partially funded by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerburg to help with the added costs of administering an election during the COVID-19 pandemic.
While municipalities across the state received money, a large majority of it went to the state’s five largest, and mostly Democratic voting, cities. Republicans have repeatedly alleged that these funds amounted to bribery and partisan-oriented get out the vote operations. The state’s courts have disagreed with the bribery charge, yet Republicans have continued to use the grants as a major complaint about the 2020 election.
“This should not be a partisan issue,” the resolution’s co-author, Rep. Tyler August (R-Lake Geneva), said. “Private funds, no matter if they’re from Facebook, or the Koch brothers or wherever, should never be used to administer our elections in this state.”
“I believe one of the core functions of government is administering elections,” August, the Assembly Republican majority leader, added later. “And so as a small government conservative that doesn’t like to see the government spend unnecessarily, I think elections are a necessary expense and as a taxpayer, I’m okay with spending more money through my local municipalities on elections to make sure that these private dollars aren’t part of the equation.”
But Democrats objected, saying that municipalities were forced to turn to private avenues for funding because there wasn’t enough coming from the state. Sen. Mark Spreitzer (D-Beloit), said that the Republicans were shutting off the flow of funds from all angles by passing this resolution because they had already refused to add more money for elections during the state budget process earlier this year.
“If we are going to do this, then we need to actually put public funding in place so that we don’t need private funding,” Spreitzer said. “You’re the majority leader, help me understand why we should trust that public funding is going to be put in place when even during the time this amendment has been out for consideration, that public funding has been rejected by Republicans.”
After the resolution’s authors testified on the bill, Ron Heuer, the president of the Wisconsin Voter Alliance and one of the state’s most vocal proponents of election conspiracy theories, testified for 20 minutes on the threat of “Zuckerbucks.”
The committees then heard testimony on a bill and a resolution about the voting eligibility of non-citizens. The bill, AB 93, would require that drivers’ licenses issued to non-citizens in Wisconsin include a notation that the holder is not eligible to vote. The resolution would change the state Constitution to prevent municipalities from allowing non-citizens to vote in local elections — a change that some communities in other states have made.
Knodl, who authored the license bill when he was still a member of the Assembly earlier this year, said the change was needed and noted a number of instances in which non-citizens were charged with felonies for trying to cast a ballot.
He named an instance he heard about in Mequon in which a non-citizen with a driver’s license went to the municipal clerk’s office to cast an in-person absentee ballot, but left without voting after being informed that non-citizens can’t vote. He also pointed to one voter fraud prosecution in Ozaukee County for a non-citizen trying to vote.
When people register to vote in Wisconsin, they are required to check a box affirming they are legal U.S. citizens who are eligible to vote. Lying on that form is a crime.
Rep. Clinton Anderson (D-Beloit), asked if the change was necessary because clearly people trying to register are getting caught and charged with crimes. Knodl responded angrily that the bill would stop the problem before it takes place.
“This puts in that additional safeguard that the clerks are requesting so that they can do their jobs properly,” Knodl said. “If you don’t find any importance in that, I can’t speak to that. I find a significant importance. The fraudulent voting had taken place. We need to get ahead of it. So again, I’m concerned about that, perhaps you are not concerned about votes being cast that are fraudulent. But that’s unsettling, representative.”
Finally, the committees heard testimony on a resolution that would amend the Constitution to require people to provide a valid photo ID before casting a ballot. That is already a requirement under state law, yet Republicans said they want to include the provision to head off Democratic attempts to overturn the law in the courts.
When Republicans instituted the ID requirements more than a decade ago, they bragged that the result would be depressed turnout among minorities and college students — two groups who largely support Democratic candidates.
Yet in the hearing Tuesday, the resolution’s authors, Sen. Van Wanggaard (R-Racine) and Rep. Pat Snyder (R-Schofield), said that liberal claims that the requirements suppress turnout are overblown.
“[Ending the ID requirements have] been in every budget that the governor decided to put in. He wanted to wipe it out because we were going to be oppressive to the minorities and this would restrict them,” Snyder said. “That’s an insult to those folks … I’ve seen interviews with people in Harlem, New York, when they’re told that they can’t get a voter ID and they’re being oppressed and they get upset. They know where their driver’s license office is. So to be that presumptive of a group of people is wrong.”
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