Clashes between Democrats and Republicans in Wisconsin’s state Senate over bills restricting absentee voting echoed a larger fight over election reforms playing out in statehouses nationwide since the 2020 election.
MADISON, Wis. (CN) — The GOP-controlled Wisconsin Senate passed multiple bills on Wednesday that limit the use of ballot drop boxes, create new paperwork for voting absentee and increase rules and regulations for voters who are indefinitely confined or live in nursing homes.
Republicans in Wisconsin and across the nation — including in Florida, Georgia, Texas and Arizona — are making broad changes to election laws and procedures they say are unfair or illegal after a chaotic 2020 election ended with 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 smorgasbord of alleged fraud failed in state and federal courts, and a recount Trump demanded in two populous, liberal-leaning counties reaffirmed Biden’s win.
Governor Tony Evers, a Democrat who recently announced his plans to run for reelection in 2022, has repeatedly said he will veto any legislation that makes it harder to vote, rendering the bills passed Wednesday essentially dead in the water.
On the docket Wednesday were GOP-authored bills putting caps and restrictions on voting via secure drop boxes, increasing the need for voters to provide photo ID to vote absentee, creating more onerous paperwork to get an absentee ballot, restricting the ability for a voter to claim they are indefinitely confined for the purposes of voting absentee and creating a contingency plan for facilitating voting in nursing homes should election workers be barred from entering them due to, say, another pandemic.
One bill passed and sent to the Wisconsin Assembly — also controlled by Republicans — mandates that the state elections commission provide voters with a separate absentee ballot application in lieu of the certificate envelope application that comes with an absentee ballot that has been traditionally used. The bill also bars election officials from sending unsolicited absentee ballot applications and requires voters to present photo ID every time they ask for an absentee ballot, instead of just once as is currently state law.
Another bill would allow for nursing home workers to be trained as what are known as special voting deputies — election officials who visit long-term care facilities to help residents vote absentee — should those officials be barred from entering facilities, a reaction to Covid-19 keeping visitors out of nursing homes as a safety precaution.
Yet another would make it law that voting via tamper-proof drop boxes, a popular choice for coronavirus-wary voters in 2020, must be attached to the building where the municipal clerk’s office is located or, failing that, on other municipal property. Larger cities like Milwaukee and Madison that utilized multiple discrete drop boxes would have to eliminate many of them under the legislation, although the bill would allow municipalities with populations of 70,000 or more to have as many as three additional drop boxes.
A Democrat-sponsored amendment that would have allowed drop boxes to be placed at police and fire stations in addition to municipal clerk’s offices was tabled by Republicans. Democrats argued in part that not only are police and fire stations adequately secure for drop boxes but are also advantageous because they are open 24 hours a day, unlike municipal offices with limited hours.
The state Senate additionally approved an Assembly bill on Wednesday curtailing the use of money from private individuals or organizations to administer elections. This has been in Republicans’ crosshairs since Wisconsin’s five largest cities received $6 million in election donations from the Center for Tech and Civic Life, an outfit bankrolled by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan, despite the fact that more than 200 other state municipalities also got a cut of the group’s cash.
Republicans in the Senate defended the voting bills as common-sense reforms intended to restore shaken confidence in America’s election systems and create uniform legal codes meant to make consistent irregularities that occurred in 2020’s elections. Democrats condemned the bills as bald voter suppression and cynical anti-democratic gamesmanship based on hurt feelings over a lost election, debunked conspiracy theories and solutions in search of problems.
Senator Duey Stroebel, a Republican from Saukville who authored the bill concerning absentee ballot applications, insisted that Republicans are just “looking for a level playing field here” and only want to close loopholes that were abused last year.
Of the drop boxes bill she put together, Sen. Alberta Darling, a Republican from River Hills, said “our goal is to get consistent, equal protection and uniform approaches to our election issues.” She assured outraged liberal colleagues that “we’re not trying to overturn the election” from 2020 and charged that “the big lie” of a stolen election ceaselessly peddled by Trump and his supporters is in fact just an oft-repeated media affectation.
“Plain and simple, this is voter suppression,” said Melissa Agard, a Democratic senator from Madison.
“If there was fraud, show us. You had recounts, you had investigations and you found nothing,” said Robert Wirch, a Democrat from Somers, who also blasted Assembly Speaker Robin Vos for recently launching two more reviews of the 2020 election.
One review is spearheaded by the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau, whereas another is being carried out by retired cops handpicked by Vos, the latter of which Senator Chris Larson, a Democrat from Milwaukee, dubbed a “taxpayer-funded election hit squad.”
Two more elections bills originally on the agenda Wednesday were referred back to the Committee on Senate Organization. One would create new hurdles to voters declaring themselves indefinitely confined, while the other would further regulate and standardize absentee ballot applications.
All the elections bills brought to a vote on Wednesday passed either 20-12 along party lines or 18-14 with two Republican defectors.