By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — Republican lawmakers plan to introduce a package of bills in the coming days aimed at tightening Wisconsin’s election laws and restoring faith in the state’s voting system.
The bills, about a dozen or so, are being introduced by Sens. Duey Stroebel (R-Saukville) and Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills), among others, legislative sources tell Empower Empower Wisconsin.
Measures include everything from prohibiting the practice of “vote curing” to fix absentee voter ID loopholes.
It all starts with making election law language crystal clear and holding state elections officials accountable if they fail to follow the law, sources say.
“It’s safe to say the real concern is how balls and strikes were called” in the November election, one legislative aide told Empower Wisconsin.
A lot of Wisconsin conservatives felt — still feel — the system was rigged, no matter how many times the left-leaning mainstream media insist there’s “nothing to see here.” And the problems remain unresolved. Legislative Republicans say election law reform remains one of the top concerns of their conservative constituents.
“Public confidence in our elections is at a crisis point,” Stroebel said.
Voter integrity advocates scratched their heads at a surge last year in so-called “indefinitely confined” individuals. The status — once reserved for the elderly, disabled and infirm — was liberally used by those who claimed they could’t leave their homes to vote. So, they were allowed to skirt the state’s voter ID laws, raising questions about the integrity of some votes. The widening designation was clearly abused. Former state Sen. Patty Schachtner claimed she was “indefinitely confined” even as she served as St. Croix County medical examiner and continued to hold campaign events.
One of the bills in the package would address the expanded definitions. It would require statements of indefinite confinement to be made under oath or affirmation. Making a false statement is a Class I felony, punishable by up to 3/12 years in prison and a $10,000 fine. The measure also would clarify that the existence of a pandemic or communicable disease does not automatically qualify a voter to claim indefinitely confined status.
“We had a couple of county clerks who decided to broadly interpret ‘indefinitely confined,’” said state Sen. Kathy Bernier (R-Chippewa Falls), chair of the Senate Committee on Elections, Ethics and Rural Issues. “It’s another problem. It’s like whack-a-mole, and we have to deal with it.”
Another reform measure takes on groups like the left-leaning Center for Technology and Civic Life. The nonprofit, which advocates for absentee and vote-by-mail initiatives, is largely funded by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife. The group “gifted” Wisconsin’s five largest and heavily left-wing cities — Milwaukee, Madison, Green Bay, Kenosha and Racine — $6 million in election-related funding.
The proposal, sources say, would prohibit a county or municipality from applying for or receiving grants or donations from nonprofit organizations for administering or facilitating an election in Wisconsin. If the state receives such funding, the money would have to be distributed to all of Wisconsin’s counties and municipalities on a per- capita basis. The Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee would have to approve the funding and the plan to distribute it.
“Our state is not stranger to tough electoral battles that end with narrow margins. Perhaps because of the pandemic, perhaps because some thought they could get away with it, 2020 was different,” Stroebel said. “The actions of the Wisconsin Elections Commission and some local election officials, through conflicting guidance, ignorance of the law, and a refusal to abide by the plain language of statutes, led to electoral chaos.
“These bills are about restoring confidence in our elections. We must ensure uniformity of process and transparency of conduct so all voters, regardless of political belief, trust the final outcome.”
Here are some of the other reform proposals that could make the cut in the coming weeks:
Fixing Absentee Voting ID Loopholes and Unsolicited Absentee Ballot Application Mailings
- Eliminates all automatic mailing of absentee ballots under current various provisions that allow for that procedure.
- Requires all absentee ballot requests to include a copy of photo ID (no voter ID loophole). Would not apply to military voters. Require all absentee voters to include proof of voter ID with every absentee ballot they submit.
- Prohibits the unsolicited or mass mailing of absentee ballot applications by the Wisconsin Elections Commission, any state agency, any county or any political subdivision of the state.
Prohibiting Ballot Curing by Clerks, Election Workers, Imposing Penalties
- Specifically prohibits anyone but the elector or a witness to an absentee ballot from curing defects in absentee ballot certificates. Current law provides clerks a mechanism for allowing voters to fix errors on returned absentee ballot certificates.
- Specifies that any election official who knowingly assists in the commission of election fraud or voter registration fraud, or who fails to report knowledge of such fraud, is guilty of a Class I felony.
Security of Absentee Ballot Delivery to Municipal Clerks
- Expands current provisions for requesting an absentee ballot and returning a ballot by mail to include by any commercial parcel service (this allows a voter to use USPS, UPS, FedEx, etc.).
- Clarifies that only a voter or their immediate family member may return a voted absentee ballot to a municipal clerk or polling place. (End so-called “ballot harvesting.”)
- Requires any event at which voter absentee ballots are returned to the municipal clerk or his or her staff to comply with the same requirements for an early in-person voting location (also called an alternative voting location) to include hours and times of operation and allowance of observers. (Ends quasi-official early voting events at non-complying locations and times.)
- Establishes a formula for determining the number of absentee ballot return drop boxes that a municipality may have and require them to comply with several conditions.
- Specifies that any person who tampers with, damages, defaces, or attempts to destroy the absentee ballot receptacle or ballots delivered to such a receptacle is guilty of a Class I felony.
Counting Absentee Ballots
- Requires municipalities to count absentee ballots (from in-person as well as mail-in absentee voting) on the Monday preceding an election. This will help ensure vote totals are reported as early on Election Day night as possible and reduce concerns about overnight absentee ballot dumps.