Dane County judge to rule in case over April referendum questions

By: - February 18, 2023 6:00 am
Low angle view of people lined up to vote

Voters wait to cast their ballots. (SDI Productions | Getty Images)

A Dane County Circuit Court judge is expected to make a ruling Monday that could determine whether two statewide referenda will appear on ballots in April. Judge Rhonda Lanford is presiding over the lawsuit, filed by the groups Ex-Incarcerated People Organizing (EXPO) and the faith-based organization WISDOM. The lawsuit argues that the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC) sent the initiatives to county clerks a day past a deadline required by state law. As a result, the lawsuit argues that the referenda should be pushed to 2024.

Both of the ballot measures were drafted by Republican legislators. One, which is nonbinding, asks whether “childless, able-bodied adults” should be required to search for work while receiving public benefits. The second asks Wisconsinites whether the state constitution should be amended to allow judges to consider a person’s past criminal history, among other things, when determining how much bail to set.

Bail has become a hot-button issue in Wisconsin after  the Waukesha Christmas Parade tragedy in late 2021, when  39-year-old Darrell Brooks drove an SUV through the parade, killing six and wounding dozens more. Brooks was sentenced to six life terms in a Waukesha County court nearly a year later.

Republican lawmakers have insisted that Wisconsin’s bail laws are weak and limit what judges can consider. Criminal justice advocates counter that judges have wide latitude to set conditions for release, including  high bails and other measures when someone poses a risk to the community. Financial barriers to release disproportionately affect low-income people accused of crimes, critics add.The ballot measures were passed the Legislature on Jan. 19. Under state law, the measures must be submitted to the proper “official or agency” 70 days in advance of appearing on the ballot. That would have set the deadline for Jan. 25, WPR reported. The legislature sent the measures to the WEC the day they passed. The commission, however, didn’t submit those questions to county clerks until Jan. 26.

“The people are going to be punished because WEC waited two days too long,” said Misha Tseytlin, the attorney representing Republican legislators.

Dan Lenz, an attorney with Law Forward, stressed that Republican lawmakers have to follow the law and the rules. “When this gerrymandered Legislature wants to do something as important as amending the constitution — because that’s what they’re trying to do here — they need to follow the rules that are set forth in the statutes and in the laws (that) they pass just like everybody else,” Lenz said in a Wisconsin Public Radio interview.

EXPO and WISDOM argue that they deserve more time under the law to organize members against the referenda. An attorney for the Wisconsin Department of Justice, which is representing the WEC, said that is not justification for delaying the ballots. Judge Lanford is expected to issue a ruling by the end of business on Monday.


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Isiah Holmes
Isiah Holmes

Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His writing has been featured in Urban Milwaukee, Isthmus, Milwaukee Stories, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Services, Pontiac Tribune, the Progressive Magazine, Al Jazeera, and other outlets.