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Reducing the amount of time for absentee voting in Wisconsin — also known as early voting — was a key feature of a bill passed in the state's marathon extraordinary session early Wednesday.  

The measure, enshrined in Senate Bill 884, caps the window for absentee voting by 14 days ahead of an election for all municipalities statewide. If it is signed by outgoing Gov. Scott Walker, it would more than halve the amount of time voters in Madison and Milwaukee have been able to cast their ballot in the past.

Those municipalities offered more than four weeks of early voting in the last statewide election in November and saw record turnout for Democrats who launched Gov.-elect Tony Evers to victory. 

The period of absentee voting has varied widely across the nearly 1,800 municipalities that administer elections in Wisconsin for a variety of reasons. Clerks can currently offer in-person ballots to voters up to 47 days before an election, said Reid Magney, a spokesman for the state's Elections Commission. 

In promoting the new restrictions throughout the week, legislative Republicans — led by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Burlington, and Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette of the Joint Finance Committee — said the limitation was needed to promote fairness across the state and make early voting standard across all municipalities. 

Republicans who advanced the measure in the extraordinary session said it is different than a previous law that was struck down, deemed unconstitutional by a federal judge in 2016. That law put time restrictions on early voting, in addition to limiting the number of days it could occur.  

This one is different, Vos said, hours before his chamber voted on it Wednesday.

"This proposal right now, you can do it on the weekend, you can do it as many polling places as you want. They have the right to do it. That is totally different than the first.  We wanted to listen to what judge Petersen said but not disadvantage rural areas," he said. 

Nygren repeatedly emphasized that the reduction was needed to enforce parity across all municipalities, so that voters in smaller towns could have the same amount of early voting time as those in heavily populated ones. 

“We do believe that’s a fairness issue,” he said. 

But municipal clerks say that local governments should have the ability to determine what is most fair and cost effective to meet the needs of their voters. Those needs vary significantly from municipality to municipality, where some votes are cast by appointment at a clerk's kitchen table and others at a more traditional polling location like a town hall or school. 

“My question on that is, 'Is it fair to make a community allocate resources for something that is not needed?'" said Kelly Michaels, the clerk for the city of Brookfield and president of the Wisconsin Municipal Clerks Association. "I guess I don't understand what is unfair if your elected leaders in your community determine that you are able to take care of anyone who wants to vote by allocating this amount of resources. What is unfair about that?" 

A one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to administering elections doesn't always make sense, said Michaels, who has been administering elections in Wisconsin since 1989 in both rural areas of the state and more populous municipalities.

"It sounds good but it doesn't always fit all ...if we want to be smart stewards of the people's money," she said.

A sparsely populated municipality will have fewer voters and therefore need less time to accommodate dates, whereas a populous urban area like Madison or Milwaukee has thousands more voters to process. Limiting the window for early voting limits those clerks' capacity to process their voters, she said.

"When we look at voting across the state of Wisconsin, it's not all the same as far as what your paradigms in your community are, as far as what we see in turnout, and how they're voting. Clerks track that information so they can plan for what's going to occur," she said.

One Wisconsin Now, a liberal advocacy group which brought the earlier federal lawsuit against early voting restrictions said it would likely sue over the new cap, too, after the bill is signed.  

“We don’t mandate every community have the same number of schools, regardless of the number of kids. We wouldn’t make communities eliminate firefighters or police officers because some have more than others,” said Scot Ross, executive director of the group. “This bill is an outright attempt to squeeze urban voters out of the opportunity to exercise their right to vote.”

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The group conducted an analysis of early voting patterns in 2012 and found longer waits to vote and reduced access to voting in Milwaukee and Madison where clerks have to process more voters faster to minimize lines. Rural communities with smaller populations could much more easily accommodate voters, even with a cap on early voting.

Another element of the bill passed Wednesday would require all state agencies, including the Wisconsin Elections Commission, to follow new rules when offering advice on how to follow and interpret state laws.

For the Elections Commission, this means that anytime a staff member wants respond to a question and offer advice to a candidate, member of the public or a local clerk on how to follow election law, it would first need to get approval from the Legislature by submitting a report, then having a period of public comment for it. Staff members frequently provide such guidance through informal email exchanges.

Meagan Wolfe, interim director of the commission, warned lawmakers this week that those new requirements would be burdensome and "not practical." 

"The sheer volume of materials that would need to be reviewed and edited to include citations to specific statutes would be a challenge," she wrote. "Second, such an effort may be counterproductive because training and informational materials are most effective when they are presented in plain language and not cluttered by statutory citations." 

A chief mandate of the commission is to educate the public by publishing election manuals “written so as to be easily understood by the general public,” according to Wisconsin law. 

"Inserting statutory and case law citations related to each statement of interpretation conflicts with that mandate," Wolfe wrote.

Gov. Walker has not opined directly on the voting provisions or reporting requirements, but has signaled no opposition to signing the bill into law. 

 

Katelyn Ferral is The Cap Times' public affairs and investigative reporter. She joined the paper in 2015 and previously covered the energy industry for the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. She's also covered state politics and government in North Carolina.