The Wisconsin Elections Commission wants more guidance from the Republican-run Legislature on its approach for updating the state's voter rolls, a central issue in a pending lawsuit against the board.
The lawsuit, from the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, could jeopardize the eligibility of more than 200,000 registered voters by quickly taking them off the rolls, thus not allowing them to cast ballots until they re-register.
While WILL argues the commission is acting illegally in its outreach efforts to certain voters, state officials counter they're following the law — which they note is mum on many specifics.
But as the suit continues making its way through the courts, members voted at their meeting Monday to pursue new legislation setting further framework for the process.
"If the lawsuit brings clarity then I think we all welcome clarity, but I'm not positive it’s going to cover all of this," said Commission Chair Dean Knudson, a Republican appointee.
The lawsuit stems over the requirements tied to the state's involvement in the Electronic Registration Information Center, an effort to identify voters who changed their address, moved out of state or died. State officials reach out to so-called "movers," or Wisconsin registered voters who told a different government agency they've recently moved to confirm their addresses.
If recipients fail to respond to the mailing within 30 days, according to the state statute WILL pointed to in its initial complaint, they become ineligible to vote and need to re-register in order to cast a ballot. But Elections Commission officials have said the law only requires that Wisconsin join ERIC and doesn't specify how voter maintenance should be conducted.
Commissioners didn't specify what an ideal bill would look like. Rather, they gave staff the go ahead to begin conversations with lawmakers about potential legislation or rulemaking authority governing the "movers."
The motion passed 5-1 over an objection from the commission's newest member, Republican appointee Robert Spindell, who pushed for the body to wait and see how the issue plays out in the courts. He added it isn't worthwhile to push for a bill during the current state of divided government -- a point his fellow commissioners disagreed on.
Before he was appointed to the commission in mid-October, Spindell said he had encouraged WILL to pursue a lawsuit on the issue. Since he joined the body, he said he has not been in contact with the group's attorneys.
"My point in this is just let it slide and see what happens to the court case because anything else is a waste of time," he said.
WILL president Rick Esenberg in a statement noted that while the commission is "free to ask the Legislature to change the law," the body "must follow it" until it is altered.
Meanwhile, clerks in all counties in the state but one are expected to receive funding to bolster their elections security efforts and implement baseline improvements ahead of next year's presidential race.
While the state made $1.1 million in funding available at its meeting in September, around $800,000 is expected to be spent on the effort in all counties except Menominee, where no officials applied for grants from the board.
The biggest expenditures officials in the nearly 800 receiving jurisdictions sought funding for, according to the commission's meeting minutes, were for new computer hardware and operating system upgrades, as well as IT support.
Commissioners Monday voted to direct the remaining $300,000 toward a reserve fund for clerks that face an elections-related emergency and help officials reach baseline security standards. The money would be for new clerks who weren't in their posts as of Nov. 15, 2019 and therefore couldn't apply for the initial round of funds.
They also agreed to allocate the dollars to jurisdictions for more secure email addresses or websites. That includes officials who want @wi.gov email addresses — which would give them additional malware scanning features — or implement HTTPS for websites where unofficial election results are posted.
But commissioners unanimously opted to only create a $500 grant program for implementation of HTTPS security for the 37 counties’ websites that are not currently secure. In order to be eligible for the funding, the counties would need to update their websites by Jan. 28.
"The whole reason we’re doing this is we want to have confidence in the security of election night reporting," said Commissioner Ann Jacobs, a Democratic appointee who proposed the motion.
In the meantime, the panel opted to wait on tying up the additional funding until Jan. 28, when county and municipal clerks will need to have installed endpoint testing software, a means to protect the entire network, in order to access the state's WisVote system. That way, commissioners agreed they could use the information to see how many officials still aren't compliant and determine how to help them fix that.
The funding for the initiatives stems from the around $7 million in federal money Wisconsin received in 2018 for election security efforts. The funding is part of around $380 million the federal government allocated across the nation to bolster election administration efforts. Federal lawmakers are also considering making additional funds available.