Voters wait in line to vote at Washington High School on April 7, 2020. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)
Voters in four Wisconsin counties voted overwhelmingly Tuesday in favor of banning private funds to help election administration.
The ballot measures were all advisory, but the sentiment was the same: to reject the sort of aid that helped communities across the state manage the November 2020 election in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic.
More than 200 Wisconsin municipalities had to close or consolidate polling stations in the April 2020 election after many poll workers dropped out because they feared getting sick in the pandemic. Later that year the national nonprofit Center for Tech and Civic Life handed out $8.8 million so communities in the state could shore up their election infrastructure for the 2020 presidential election.
The grants helped pay for personal protective equipment for poll workers, plastic germ barriers at polling stations and other expenses. Wisconsin’s five largest cities — Milwaukee, Madison, Green Bay, Kenosha and Racine — shared in $6.1 million of the funds.
After President Joe Biden defeated former President Donald Trump, some Republicans and Trump supporters sought to discredit the grant program. They claimed it gave an unfair advantage to communities with large concentrations of Democratic voters, although funds went to communities throughout the state.
The Center for Tech and Civic Life was funded in part by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, and critics of the grants took to pejoratively calling the funds “Zuckerbucks.”
Gov. Tony Evers twice vetoed Republican bills to outlaw the grants.
The Brown, Price and Lincoln county boards all put advisory referendum questions on their ballots for this year’s fall election asking if Wisconsin should prohibit private, outside funds for election administration. In all three counties, 80% or more of the voters agreed that outside funding should be outlawed.
In Waukesha County, the county board worded the question differently — asking voters if the Legislature should propose an amendment to the state constitution that would ban outside funding or other help for election administration. More than 72% favored such an amendment.
A second question asked if the Legislature should propose a constitutional amendment “requiring that election administration, access to ballots, and counting of ballots be nearly uniform as practicable.” More than 79% of voters answered “yes.”
Matt Rothschild, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign and a critic of attempts to outlaw outside support for election administration, said local elections offices “don’t get enough money from the state,” and so have to turn elsewhere for resources.
“I’m not surprised” that the referenda passed, he said, “because if you’re not totally up to speed on the issue it sounds perfectly reasonable.”
Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause in Wisconsin, also criticizes the effort to ban outside funding.
“If conservatives and Republicans use [the votes this week] as an endorsement to outlaw outside funding for election administration, that suggests they take advisory referendums seriously,” Heck said.
In many counties large majorities of voters have voted in favor of campaign finance reform and for nonpartisan legislative redistricting, only to be ignored by the Legislature’s GOP majority and leadership, he observed.
“I will take seriously a referendum question like this and the answers to it when the conservatives begin to take seriously advisory referendums on issues they don’t agree with,” Heck said.
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