By M.D, Kittle
MADISON — A Senate committee wants the Wisconsin Elections Commission to do what it should have done a long time ago: Follow state election law.
The Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules (JCRAR) meets today at 10 a.m. at the Capitol. Committee members will take up a proposal that would bring special voting deputies (SPD) back into nursing homes and other long-term care facilities during elections.
State Elections commissioners have throughout the pandemic suspended SVDs, deputized assistants from both political parties who are tasked with helping residential care community residents vote. The commission did so again last month, voting 5-1 to bar the voting deputies to assist during next week’s spring primary elections.
Instead, long-term care facility staff have been assigned to help residents fill out their absentee ballots. The commission instructed municipal clerks to mail ballots to residential care facilities without the benefit of SVDs to assist.
During a hearing on irregularities and claims of misconduct in November’s presidential election, a state committee took testimony from several Wisconsinites who claimed their elderly and disabled loved ones were influenced or manipulated in their vote by nursing home employees — a clear violation of election law.
The Elections Commission clearly violated election law when it barred special voting deputies and allowed residential care employees to do the jobs of the state-recognized assistants, according to Sen. Steve Nass, co-chair of the administrative rules committee.
“The Wisconsin Elections Commission and its staff have been issuing improper directives to local municipal clerks that raise serious questions regarding the integrity of absentee voting by residents of residential care facilities across the state,” the Whitewater Republican said in a statement, adding that the Elections Commission has no authority to issue its directives.
A Wisconsin Legislative Council legal opinion finds the same.
“State law does not empower the Elections Commission to waive the requirement for clerks to dispatch SVDs to qualifying care facilities, nor does it contain an exemption for clerks based on the pandemic,” a council memo states. “While the statutes permit clerks to mail absentee ballots to facility residents, they may do so only after two SVD visits to the facility.”
In fact, law requires SVDs be used at residential care facilities that have five or more registered voters, if at least one voter has applied for an absentee ballot.
As the memo notes, SVDs must meet certain qualifications, including being an eligible voter in the county, completing training, taking an oath to fully and fairly implement the absentee voting law, and not being an employee of a residential care facility or qualified retirement within the prior two years.
That would preclude nursing home staff members from assisting residents to vote. In other words, the Elections Commission’s directive assisted residential care facilities in breaking state election law.
State Rep. Janel Brandtjen (R-Menomonee Falls) on Wednesday sent a letter to members of the Elections Commission asking them to uphold the law.
“There are safety precautions in place for seniors in care facilities. WEC should follow existing law and not put our elections at risk. Our vulnerable seniors deserve proper oversight.” Brandtjen, chair of the Assembly’s Campaigns and Elections Committee.
Wisconsin Elections Commission Administrator Meagan Wolfe told WisconsinEye this week that the commission has followed the “guidance from the Department of Health Services and relayed that to the clerks in relation to if they will be able to make visits to care facilities or if they’ll have to proceed to sending those voters their ballots.” There is currently no order preventing SVDs from entering residential care facilities.
On a related note, the Legislative Audit Committee will hold a hearing this morning at 11 a.m. to address the proposed audit of elections administration. Wolfe claims, “It’s always great” to have the opportunity for more analysis on Wisconsin’s elections.