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Bids to alter Wisconsin elections fall mostly along partisan lines

Republicans want to restrict drop boxes and absentee voting. Democrats aim to make it easier to vote. Both parties favor quicker vote counting.

Election worker Josh Del Colle counting ballots at the Milwaukee Central Count location after the polls had closed for the evening, on Nov. 3, 2020.
Election worker Josh Del Colle counting ballots at the Milwaukee Central Count location after the polls had closed for the evening, on Nov. 3, 2020.
Eric Kleppe-Montenegro for Wisconsin Watch

This article is from Wisconsin Watch, a nonprofit news organization based in Madison, Wisconsin.

Proposals to change Wisconsin’s voting system could determine how one of America’s top swing states picks congressional candidates, how it awards its 10 Electoral College votes, how fast results can be announced and who can use the increasingly popular method of absentee voting.

But the political divisiveness that caused Wisconsin to flip from red to blue by the slimmest of margins in the 2020 presidential race will likely continue, stymying all but a few bipartisan proposals. A Republican-led Legislature and Democratic governor mean that purely partisan priorities are unlikely to make their way through, experts told Wisconsin Watch.

And a sweeping Democratic bill to broaden access to voting and thwart partisan gerrymandering nationally faces a steep climb in the U.S. Senate after passing the House on a party-line vote.

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In recent weeks, lawmakers nationwide have proposed hundreds of bills to change states’ voting laws following the contentious November presidential election. Wisconsin is no exception.

Democrats generally seek to make it easier to vote, citing national security assessments that the 2020 contest was among the most secure ever. Republicans insist the high-turnout election was rife with fraud — although election officials of both parties and judges at all levels have rejected those allegations — and generally seek to add more restrictions and safeguards.

In late February, Republicans in the Wisconsin Legislature began circulating a slate of bills that would, among other changes, tighten absentee voting and the definition of “indefinitely confined” voters. President Donald Trump’s campaign challenged these components in Democratic-majority Dane and Milwaukee counties in a December recount. Three Democratic members of the Assembly Elections Committee called the proposals “a full-on assault on our elections and the ability for Wisconsinites to vote.”

But dramatic changes to Wisconsin’s election laws are unlikely in the short term, said David Canon, a political scientist at University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“Any efforts aimed at making it easier to vote aren’t going to happen because the Republican leadership and state Legislature won’t want to do that. Anything that’s aimed at restricting access to voting won’t happen because (Democratic Gov. Tony) Evers would veto that, and they wouldn’t have enough votes to override the veto,” Canon said.

A spokesperson for Evers declined comment on which bills he was likely to sign or veto, but referred Wisconsin Watch to the governor’s proposed budget, which includes proposals to establish automatic voter registration; expand the timeline on absentee voting; and require the Legislature to consider the recommendations of Evers’ People’s Maps Commission when drawing new political boundaries this year.

Atiba Ellis, a law professor at Marquette University focusing on voting rights, said both election security and voter access are important. “They do not have to be at odds,” Ellis said. “But I think for politically motivated reasons they are put at odds, and that then justifies passing laws that are stricter than what the political science data says they need to be.”

There is some bipartisan agreement, including a proposal to bring ranked-choice voting to Wisconsin. In that system, congressional primaries would be nonpartisan, with the top five finishers, regardless of party, continuing to the general election, when they would be ranked by voters.

Another bipartisan idea, which failed to make it through the last session, would allow clerks to process absentee ballots before Election Day. Supporters say this would enhance voter confidence by preventing a delay in declaring statewide winners.

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According to the Brennan Center for Justice, 43 states are weighing 253 bills to restrict voter access, while a different set of 43 states is weighing at least 704 bills that would expand voting access. Lawmakers are particularly focused on absentee voting, the Brennan Center found, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which kept a significant portion of the electorate from going to the polls on Election Day.

Process ballots sooner

In Wisconsin, Republicans and Democrats find some agreement around when absentee ballots can be processed. Wisconsin law bars processing until polls open on Election Day. In November, this meant that workers at Milwaukee’s central count worked until early morning, opening, unfolding and running hundreds of thousands of ballots through tabulating machines.

The Trump campaign capitalized on the overnight count to falsely claim that Milwaukee had “dumped” ballots that swung the election for President Joe Biden.

“What people didn’t understand is those votes came in in Milwaukee at 2 in the morning because that was the first time the elections officials had the chance to get to the machines and feed in the ballots,” said Kathleen Dolan, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

An easy fix would be to process absentee ballots before Election Day, experts say. In the last legislative session, lawmakers debated bipartisan legislation to allow this to happen, but the bill languished amid disagreement over details, including how different municipalities would adapt that practice.

Republican lawmakers are again taking up the issue, but divisions are emerging over whether to opt for early processing, or change the rules for early voting. Rather than placing ballots in envelopes that election workers process later, some lawmakers propose letting early in-person voters directly feed their ballots into voting machines.

Diane Coenen, Oconomowoc city clerk and former president of the Wisconsin Municipal Clerks Association, said the latter method would allow for instant detection of ballot errors — and buy time for busy clerks and poll workers to work with in-person voters.

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Congress mulls big changes

Nationally, Democratic lawmakers are pushing a sweeping voting reform package, HR 1, which includes automatic voter registration and would bar voter ID and witness requirements for mail-in voting. It also seeks to reduce “dark money” in campaigns and require states to create nonpartisan redistricting commissions to prevent partisan gerrymandering.

Republicans have decried the package, saying it would restrict free speech and usurp states’ rights. Many also oppose changes to redistricting processes.

The bill passed in the House, but, facing this opposition, pundits say it faces a steep hill towards passage in the Senate. Biden has signaled he would sign it.

On Sunday, Biden issued an executive order requiring federal agencies to expand dissemination of information about registration and voting and other measures. The order coincided with the 56th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” when state troopers beat and tear-gassed voting rights activists in Selma, Alabama.

Electoral College, drop boxes debated

Wisconsin is one of several states also considering changing how to award electors.

As proposed, Wisconsin would award them by congressional district, rather than winner-takes-all. In 2020, this would have resulted in six of the state’s 10 electors going for Trump, rather than Biden, who narrowly won the state’s popular vote. Because of Wisconsin’s partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts, experts say the proposal would redistribute electoral power away from the areas that hold Wisconsin’s urban — and mostly Democratic — strongholds.

Republican lawmakers supportive of these and other proposals say they would restore faith in the fairness of elections.

Sen. Duey Stroebel, R-Saukville, who is sponsoring many of the not-yet-introduced bills, said he is concerned about the huge jump in the number of people who claim to be “indefinitely confined,” meaning they can vote absentee without presenting a photo ID.

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Stroebel also criticized the proliferation of drop boxes in the November election. These receptacles are not regulated by state law, although elections officials say they comply with federal guidance on how they should be secured.

“Throughout 2020, gaps, loopholes and outright violations of the clear intent of the law plagued the election process,” Stroebel said in a statement to Wisconsin Watch. “The COVID-19 pandemic combined with a hotly contested presidential election were a tremendous stress on the system, and offered the Wisconsin Elections Commission and some — but not all — local election officials a chance to disregard the plain meaning of the law.”

Sen. Duey Stroebel is seen at the State of the State address at the Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin on Jan. 24, 2018.
Coburn Dukehart/Wisconsin Watch
Sen. Duey Stroebel is seen at the State of the State address at the Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin on Jan. 24, 2018.
One GOP bill would dictate that each municipality must have no more than one drop box — so hundreds of thousands of voters in Milwaukee would have the same number of absentee ballot boxes as a town with a few hundred voters.

Stroebel said this and other measures are aimed at introducing uniformity across the state to create “complete trust in our elections” and ensure that absentee ballot procedures “comply with existing statutes.”

Tammy Patrick, a senior advisor at the Democracy Fund, a Washington, D.C.-based voting advocacy group, countered that drop boxes are “embraced all across the country” but Republicans demonized them in 2020 as “somehow jeopardizing the integrity of the election — and that is really problematic.”

Wisconsin voting mostly smooth

Despite the rancor, experts say Wisconsin’s elections tend to be well-run.

“By and large, people who are in charge of our elections do their jobs well and acquit themselves well,” Dolan said.

Problems in November were “limited and site-specific, rather than the result of a generalized inability of the system to handle a large turnout amid changes in the law,” according to a report by a coalition of Wisconsin groups that favor expansive access to voting. One marker of success: a plunging rate of rejected ballots, 0.2% in November compared to 1.8% in April.

While Wisconsin ranks high on many measures of election administration, experts and advocates say more changes could be made to improve the experience for voters and election workers alike, including creating a permanent absentee voting list; creating more lead time to request absentee ballots to account for postal delays; enacting two-way ballot tracking; and clarifying when and how clerks can fix absentee ballot envelope errors.

UW-Madison political science professor Ken Mayer, who studies election administration, said that, while there was a lot of talk about fraud in the 2020 general election, the bigger danger to election integrity is voter disenfranchisement.

“You have to worry about the things that are actually real,” Mayer said. “And one of the things that undermines the integrity of the election process is when you have lots of people … who are unable to vote, whether it’s long lines or (voter) ID (requirements) or other things — that that’s actually a threat to the integrity of the system.”

The nonprofit Wisconsin Watch collaborates with WPR, PBS Wisconsin, other news media and the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by Wisconsin Watch do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.