Wisconsin Lawmakers Pass Laws to Tighten Elections

The bills, passed largely along party lines by the GOP-majority Wisconsin Legislature, in part restrict absentee voting and outside funding for municipalities to run elections.

The Wisconsin State Capitol building in Madison. (Photo via Vijay Kumar Koulampet/Wikipedia Commons)

MADISON, Wis. (CN) — Republicans in the Wisconsin Legislature passed multiple new election laws Tuesday that place more limits on absentee voting and bar private funding for local officials to facilitate their elections.

The push in the Badger State to toughen voting statutes comes as Republicans nationwide — including in statehouses in Florida and Georgia — are working to correct what they say are unlawful or unfair election laws and procedures after a chaotic 2020 general election that ended in incumbent Donald Trump losing to President Joe Biden.

Biden narrowly won Wisconsin four years after Trump won the state by roughly the same 20,000-vote margin. Efforts by Trump and Republican sympathizers to sue to overturn the results due to a variety of alleged frauds failed in state and federal courts, and a recount Trump demanded in two populous, liberal-leaning counties reaffirmed Biden’s win.

While passage of Wisconsin’s election laws can be seen as a defeat for liberals, Governor Tony Evers, a Democrat, has promised to veto any legislation that makes it harder to vote, differentiating Wisconsin from states like Georgia and Florida with Republican chief executives who readily signed similar bills into law.

Chiefly at issue at the Capital in Madison on Tuesday were a Wisconsin Senate bill limiting the return of absentee ballots and a Wisconsin Assembly bill banning local officials from taking money from private individuals or organizations to help administer their elections — that is unless the donations are spread evenly among the state’s municipalities on a per capita basis and a GOP-controlled legislative finance committee approves.

Both pieces of legislation passed via party line votes — 21-12 in the Senate and 60-36 in the Assembly — after hours of occasionally heated debate, with Democrats accusing Republicans of promoting conspiracy theories under the guise of election integrity and Republicans accusing Democrats of hypocrisy and false piety, which ignores suspicious activity in the 2020 election that conservative constituents find troubling.

The Assembly bill is largely a reaction to more than $6 million Wisconsin’s five largest cities received in 2020 from the nonprofit Center for Tech and Civic Life — an organization bankrolled to the tune of $350 million by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan — to run their elections, though more than 200 other state municipalities also received a share of the funds.

Republicans have claimed that those private funds unfairly influenced how those areas — namely Green Bay, Milwaukee, Madison, Racine and Kenosha — carried out the election. Erick Kaardal, a lawyer who backed legal challenges to the 2020 election in Wisconsin and other states, has recently led a charge to bring formal complaints to the Wisconsin Elections Commission over the issue in those areas along with election watchdog The Amistad Project, though the claims have previously failed in court.

On the Assembly floor on Tuesday, Representative Mark Spreitzer, D-Beloit, called the Republicans’ legislation a “conspiracy theory given statutory form” that condemns a fair and sound election, which has already been litigated in multiple courts and survived a recount Republicans themselves ordered.

Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, said it was rich for Democrats to lecture the GOP about conspiratorial thinking when they spent years after the 2016 election insisting Russia helped Donald Trump win.

Steineke argued that Democrats’ efforts in 2020 to loosen election rules exposes their hypocrisy now, charging that “you can’t honestly say if the shoe was on the other foot and if this were Koch Industries using their private funds” to boost elections, liberals would not push the same bill.

The bill’s author, Representative Adam Neylon, R-Pewaukee, insisted it was all about election integrity and offered that “even if you think no fraud took place, it looks very bad,” particularly in Green Bay where the city clerk clashed with the Democratic mayor over the funds and their possible influence before resigning a month after the election.

Across the Capital in the Senate, Duey Stroebel, R-Saukville, authored the bill restricting absentee voting and said on Tuesday that it only clarifies the process, closes loopholes and protects the chain of custody to ensure ballot safety for absentee voting.

The legislation allows only a voter’s immediate family member, one other pre-designated and pre-approved person, or a voter themselves to return a given absentee ballot and does not allow anyone to return more than one absentee ballot, among other provisions designed to curb what Republicans have called “ballot harvesting.”

Senate Minority Leader Janet Bewley, D-Mason, questioned why Republicans are assuming without evidence that voter fraud is so out of control that it requires legislative safeguards when legal voting is overwhelmingly the norm.

“We have no evidence that voter fraud is rampant in our state,” Bewley said. “So why do we have to invert our assumption and assume that people are doing it wrong or cheating or violating some election law.”

The Senate also passed a bill Tuesday that bars election clerks from fixing certain defects on an absentee ballot’s envelope, a commonplace practice for years known as “curing” a ballot. The Assembly bill that passed also contained a provision that disallows members of issue advocacy organizations and other political groups from serving as poll workers.

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