Assembly advances elections-related constitutional amendment proposals and bills
“There are bills on the calendar today that we’re not going to agree on, but there are just as many that we do,” Rep. Scott Krug said ahead of a floor session on Nov. 9, 2023.
The Wisconsin Assembly advanced a slate of election policy proposals, including two constitutional amendments that will go to voters in 2024 and several bipartisan bills, during a floor session on Thursday.
“There are bills on the calendar today that we’re not going to agree on, but there are just as many that we do. I think that’s the exciting part,” said Rep. Scott Krug (R-Nekoosa), chair of the Assembly Elections and Campaigns committee, ahead of the session. Krug’s committee has spent much of the year focused on finding bipartisan measures that could improve the state’s elections system.
Britt Cudaback, a spokesperson for Gov. Tony Evers, said in a statement ahead of the session that he would veto any bills that enable politicians to interfere with elections or make it harder for eligible Wisconsinites to cast their ballot.
“If there are common-sense proposals that help ensure Wisconsin’s elections continue to be fair, secure, and safe, he’ll certainly consider signing them,” Cudaback said.
Three constitutional amendment proposals
In recent years, legislative Republicans have turned to constitutional amendments as a way to accomplish their policy goals under split government. By passing a proposal in two consecutive legislative sessions and gaining the approval of voters, lawmakers can make policy changes and sidestep the potential of a governor’s veto.
The Assembly started the floor session by approving three constitutional amendment proposals — two of which will go to voters in 2024 for referendum votes — that were all opposed by Democrats.
Lawmakers first voted 60-34 to concur in SJR 71. The proposed amendment would add language to the state constitution that specifies only U.S. citizens 18 years of age or older are allowed to vote in national, state and local elections. This is the second consideration of the constitutional amendment, having first passed in the 2021-2022 legislative session.
Rep. Tyler August (R-Lake Geneva) told reporters ahead of the floor session that the amendment was proposed in reaction to certain cities across the country, including in Vermont, Maryland and California.
“The right to vote is a sacred one as a United States citizen and is envied across the world,” August said. “I think it’s important that we protect that right and make sure that votes of citizens aren’t canceled by the votes of noncitizens.”
August added that the bill is meant to send a message that Wisconsin’s elections will “only be determined by citizens.”
At least eight states, including Alabama, Colorado, Florida, Louisiana and Ohio, have language in their constitutions specifying that noncitizens aren’t allowed to vote.
The joint resolution passed the Senate on Tuesday, setting it up for a referendum in November 2024, where voters will have the final say.
A second proposed constitutional amendment — SJR 78 — would prohibit state agencies and employees from accepting and using money, equipment or staff from an individual or nongovernmental organization for the purpose of conducting a primary, election or referendum. The Assembly concurred in the joint resolution 60-35 along party lines.
Lawmakers first introduced and passed the proposal during the 2021-2022 legislative session after the Center for Tech and Civic Life, which was funded largely by donations from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, gave grants to local communities to help with the costs of administering the 2020 presidential election during the pandemic. The grants were distributed to communities throughout Wisconsin, but the largest share went to the state’s five largest cities.
Supporters of former President Donald Trump spread conspiracy theories about the grants, claiming that they helped change the outcome of the 2020 election where President Joe Biden beat Trump by about 21,000 votes. A Wisconsin circuit court judge ultimately upheld the legality of the grants.
During debate on the bill, Rep. Lee Snodgrass (D-Appleton) said that many of the resolutions and bills that the Assembly was taking action on would do “nothing to promote democracy and the patriotic act of voting” and some were motivated by a “fear of a combo of a Democratic majority and a Democratic governor.”
“You know that the governor has the power to veto, so you take the dramatic step of meddling with the state constitution,” Snodgrass said. “Whether it’s verification of citizenship, citizenship or requiring photo identification or distrusting how elections grant money would be spent, I’ve observed that one core difference between the Democrats and the Republicans is whether or not we trust the people in Wisconsin.”
The amendment would also ban “any individual other than an election official designated by law from performing any task in the conduct of any primary, election, or referendum.”
The constitutional amendment proposal will go to voters in April 2024, when the Republican presidential primary will be held.
The Assembly also concurred — in a 60-35 party line vote — in SJR 78, which would put language in the state Constitution requiring that voters provide photo identification to vote in elections.
“This is something that has been working well for the last 10 years, a photo ID required in all Wisconsin elections, but unfortunately, as administrations will change now and in the future, there’s always that ability to be able to remove it,” Rep. Patrick Snyder (R-Schofield) said.
The Senate passed the proposed amendment on Tuesday. As this is its first consideration, the amendment will need to pass again in the 2025-2026 legislative session before it could go to voters.
Slate of bipartisan election bills pass
The Assembly passed 18 other election-related bills on Thursday, including one that would allow for absentee ballots to start being processed a day early.
AB 567, which would allow for “Monday processing” of absentee ballots, passed in a bipartisan voice vote.
The change is one that clerks have long requested.
“Why are we waiting until Tuesday night to process our ballots? When we go to bed on election night, we should have a solid unofficial result of what the results of the election are,” said Rep. Ron Tusler (R-Harrison). “And after Gov. Evers signed this bill, which he will, we will still be one of the most restrictive states in processing ballots.”
Cudaback said in an email on Thursday that Evers would sign AB 567 if it passed in its current form as amended by the committee and without “poison-pill additions.”
“Evers for years has proposed allowing county and municipal clerks to begin canvassing absentee ballots the day before an election and is glad to see this effort finally has bipartisan support,” Cudaback said.
The body did not adopt any substantial changes to the bill. It still needs to pass the Senate before it could go to Evers.
Under the bill, clerks would be allowed to begin processing absentee ballots between 7 a.m. and 8 p.m. on the Monday before election day. The bill includes provisions that specify certain times when clerks would need to report the number of absentee ballots returned and the number canvassed. The bill would not allow votes to be counted until after polls close on the day of the election.
Democrats supported the bill, saying that it was a good example of bipartisan work not often seen in the Legislature.
“It’s not perfect — don’t love everything about it — but the Monday night processing part is absolutely critical,” Anderson said. “We had clerks come to us in informational sessions saying this is one of the things they wanted to see accomplished and today with the passage of this bill, we’re going to be one step closer to giving them what they ask for.”
The bill includes other policy changes including a whistleblower provision meant to protect municipal clerks who witness and report election fraud and irregularities; a provision that requires a court to notify the Elections Commission within one business day if it rules someone is incompetent and ineligible to vote; a provision to require the verification of voters’ citizenship status; and a provision to require that absentee ballots are delivered to electors, excluding military or overseas electors, no later than 21 days before a presidential primary
Lawmakers also passed each of those provisions in four separate bills on Thursday.
AB 298 passed in a 95-2 vote. Only Reps. Francesca Hong (D-Madison) and Clint Anderson (D-Beloit) voted against. The bill, coauthored by Rep. Shae Sortwell (R-Two Rivers), would prohibit municipalities from closing more than half of its polling places within 30 days before an election, and from closing any polling place without the approval of the head of the municipality’s governing body and the municipal clerk.
The policy was proposed after Milwaukee conducted elections with only five open polling locations in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. Wisconsin’s second-largest city, Madison, still had 66 polling locations for those elections.
“The next crisis will come. There’ll be another illness. There’ll be another war. There’ll be another unrest. There will be another time when there are pressures on our country and on our state that will make it difficult to uphold our democratic process,” Sortwell said. “Those pressures should not result in what we saw happen in April of 2020. If we do not continue to uphold our elections and the right of people to vote, then why are we in this building?”
Under the bill, clerks would be required to post public notice of closures on the municipalities website or post in three different locations if there is no website and post three notices in a newspaper, unless time would only allow for one or two notices. It would also require a public hearing to be held if after an election and more than 30 days before the next election a municipality wishes to close a polling place.
“What happened in April 2020 with the massive closure of polling locations — actually 97% of polling locations in Milwaukee — that can never happen again,” Rep. Sylvia Ortiz-Velez (D-Milwaukee) said during floor debate. “This makes sure that not one single person would be able to close a substantial amount of polling locations in an emergency declaration situation.”
The bill now goes to the Senate.
AB 38, which would establish a text notification process for when absentee ballots are received, passed in a bipartisan voice vote. It now goes to the Senate.
Author Rep. David Steffen (R-Green Bay) said that text messaging has become invaluable for the customer service in other industries, and the bill will “provide that level of customer service to absentee ballot users.”
AB 476 passed in voice vote with some Democrats voting against. The bill would require a special election if the secretary of state, treasurer, attorney general or state superintendent of public instruction vacates office during the first three years of a term. If an official leaves following Jan. 1 of a year in which there is an election for the office, the governor would be allowed to fill the vacancy with the approval of the Senate.
The bill was introduced in reaction to Evers appointing Secretary of State Sarah Godlewski to the position after former Secretary of State Doug La Follette stepped down less than three months after his reelection. Republicans at the time called for a special election to be held to fill the seat.
Rep. Gae Magnafici (R-Dresser) said the situation highlighted a “fundamental flaw in our system, the bypassing of voter input for crucial appointments.”
Rep. Lisa Subeck (D-Madison) said that the bill was about “politics and nothing else,” and that she was concerned that the bill could potentially leave a vacancy in a top position for a substantial time period.
“We could be left without somebody in charge of our Department of Public Instruction, our schools, or perhaps this one will hit home with you a little bit more — the state’s top cop,” Subeck said during the session. “We could be left without an attorney general for months on end in our state.”
The bill now goes to the Senate for consideration.
Lawmakers passed several other bills on Thursday including:
- SB 283, which would require that broadcasts of canvassing proceedings must be recorded and retained for 22 months, was concurred in by voice vote. The bill will now go to Evers.
- AB 330 would require officials to review additional nomination paper signatures in cases where a candidate submitted more than the maximum number of required signatures, but an official determined that there aren’t enough valid signatures. The bill passed in a voice vote. The bill now goes to the Senate.
- AB 335 would require any candidate found guilty of a campaign finance or election fraud Class 1 felony to dissolve their campaign committee and return unencumbered funds to donors. It passed in a voice vote and now goes to the Senate.
- AB 396 would allow people to obtain a copy of the official voter registration list for Wisconsin, or any portion of the list, electronically by paying a fee of $250 or less as established by the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC). It passed by voice vote with some Democrats against it. Rep. Clint Anderson (D-Beloit) agreed that the current fee maximum — $12,500 — is too high, but said that $250 was probably too low. The bill also allows WEC to charge an additional fee for providing a copy of the list in physical form. The bill now goes to the Senate.
- AB 493 would prohibit candidates that lose in a partisan primary from running a write-in campaign in the following general election. It passed 52-45 with Reps. Tyler August, Elijah Behnke (R-Oconto), Ty Bodden (R-Hilbert), Janel Brandtjen (R-Menomonee Falls), Nate Gustafson (R-Neenah), Scott Johnson (R-Jefferson), Ellen Schutt (R-Clinton) and Chuck Wichgers (R-Muskego) voting with Democrats against it. The bill now goes to the Senate.
- AB 494 passed in voice vote. The bill would specify that “indefinitely confined” status can only be claimed by voters who “cannot travel independently without significant burden because of frailty, physical illness, or a disability that is expected to last longer than one year” and that an outbreak or epidemic of a communicable disease would not allow someone to qualify. It would also require voters seeking the status to fill out an application and provide photo identification. Those who falsely claim the status could face a penalty of 1,000 and up to six months in prison. The bill goes to the Senate.
- AB 543, which would require election observers to be placed a maximum of three feet away from the table where voters announce their name and address and where people register to vote, passed in a voice vote with some Democrats against it. Violators of the provisions under the bill could face imprisonment for up to 90 days and a fine of up to $1,000. The bill now goes to the Senate.
- AB 552, which would cap the maximum age for a state Supreme Court justice or judge of a court of record at 75, passed 53-44. Reps. Scott Allen (R-Waukesha), Jon Plumer (R-Lodi), Adam Neylon (R-Pewaukee), Joy Goeben (R-Hobart), Jerry O’Connor (Fond Du Lac), Behnke, Brandtjen, Tusler and Wichgers joined Democrats in voting against the bill. It now goes to the Senate.
- AB 570 passed in voice vote. The bill would allow employees of a residential care facility or a qualified retirement home to serve as personal care voting assistants during a public health emergency or incident of infectious disease. The bill goes to the Senate.
- AB 571 would require WEC to send a letter or postcard to a voter to verify the voter’s address if the commission receives reliable information that a voter has moved outside of the municipality specified on the voter’s registration or to a different address. The commission would also be required to change the voter’s status on the registration list from eligible to ineligible if the voter’s address has changed. It passed in a voice vote and heads to the Senate.
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