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Republican lawmakers introduce absentee voting changes

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Spring election

Election workers Danyell Franz, center left, and Jean Bawden verify voters as they prepare to cast ballots in the spring election at the Rutland Town Hall.

Republican lawmakers are introducing a package of bills that would make significant changes to absentee voting after a surge in mail-in ballots last fall led to unfounded allegations of voter fraud by then-President Donald Trump and his allies.

The package of legislation, introduced by Sen. Duey Stroebel, R-Saukville, would create a number of new rules for absentee voting after President Joe Biden won the state with more than 20,600 votes. Trump tried unsuccessfully to get courts to reject ballots based on allegations that absentee ballot laws weren’t followed.

The legislation would attempt to address some of Trump’s complaints. Overall, the Trump campaign sought to throw out more than 220,000 ballots cast in heavily Democratic Dane and Milwaukee counties.

Verona's Reagan Briggs drives for a three-point play that provided the winning points in the Wildcats' 55-54 overtime win at Wales Kettle Moraine in a WIAA Division 1 girls basketball sectional semifinal on Thursday.

“These bills are about restoring confidence in our elections,” Stroebel said in a statement. “We must ensure uniformity of process and transparency of conduct so all voters, regardless of political belief, trust the final outcome.”

The legislation, which if approved by the Republican-controlled Legislature would likely be vetoed by Gov. Tony Evers, was quickly panned by Democrats.

“Republicans continued their attack on voter rights and sunk further into conspiracy theories rather than admitting that Donald Trump lost in a free and fair election,” said Democrats on the Assembly Committee on Campaigns and Elections in a statement. “The bills that were put forward today would not help any Wisconsinite cast their vote or lawfully register to vote — they are a full-on assault on our elections and the ability for Wisconsinites to vote.”

The bills would limit who can certify themselves as an indefinitely confined voter. Current law allows those who are indefinitely unable to vote in person due to age, physical illness, infirmity or disability an exemption from having to provide a photo ID to vote.

The Trump campaign alleged an explosion of such ballots last year suggested many of those voters were just using it as an excuse not to provide a photo ID. The Wisconsin Supreme Court found those claims lacked evidence.

The Republican legislation would require anyone under the age of 65 claiming the status of indefinitely confined to fill out a statement under oath with a medical professional’s sign-off, and it would also clarify that a pandemic or other communicable disease may not be used to claim indefinitely confined status.

The legislation would also require indefinitely confined voters to renew their status every two years, and would require the Wisconsin Elections Commission to remove from the voter rolls people who claimed the status between March 12 and Nov. 3, in the throes of the pandemic.

Further, the bill would eliminate the option for indefinitely confined voters and others, except for military voters, to receive an absentee ballot automatically for any election. For indefinitely confined voters, the bill would allow for automatic absentee ballot applications to be sent.

Another one of the bills included in the legislation would target events similar to Madison’s “Democracy in the Park,” held Sept. 26 and Oct. 3, for absentee voters to drop off the completed ballots they’d received in the mail at any of Madison’s 206 parks. The city paid its poll workers to be present in city parks to collect the ballots.

“Make no mistake; a package of bills being circulated in the Capitol will make it harder, not easier, for voters to cast their ballots, especially absentee ballots,” Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway said in a statement.

The Trump campaign unsuccessfully challenged the thousands of ballots dropped off at the events on the argument that they constituted improper in-person absentee voting before the window of time provided by law two weeks before Election Day. Organizers viewed them instead as the equivalent of mailing in a completed ballot, which voters could do for weeks before the election.

The bill would restrict such events to the window of in-person absentee voting, require them to be staffed by clerk’s office employees and additionally require them to allow observers, although observers were never prohibited from attending Democracy in the Park.

The legislation would also clarify that an immediate family member can return a voter’s completed absentee ballot on that person’s behalf, and would also allow voters to designate in writing another voter who could return the ballot for them if they don’t have an immediate family member in the state.

Other bills included in the package would require the Elections Commission to create a uniform absentee ballot request to be used statewide, and would require the form to be filled out prior to receiving an absentee ballot. The legislation would require that absentee voters provide a copy of their photo ID with each absentee ballot application instead of the current law requirement that it only be presented once.

The Trump campaign had challenged in-person absentee ballots claiming the ballot envelope cannot be used as the application. The legislation would require the absentee ballot application to be separate and distinct from the ballot envelope itself.

The legislation would also prevent local clerks from sending voters unsolicited absentee ballot applications, and would bar poll workers who work for candidates or political action committees, or other political organizations from doing the same.

Another unsuccessful election lawsuit in the state brought by the Wisconsin Voters Alliance attempted to challenge Wisconsin’s election results based on an argument that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg tried to circumvent absentee voting laws by providing grants to certain municipalities through a nonprofit he funds.

The legislation would limit municipalities from applying for or accepting grants related to elections administration in most cases. For the statewide Elections Commission to distribute any private money for elections, the bill would require it be distributed to each municipality in Wisconsin on a per-capita basis, and for the Legislature’s budget committee to sign off first.

The legislation would also prohibit retirement home employees from influencing whether residents apply for an absentee ballot or for whom to vote.

One of the bills included in the package would target events similar to Madison's "Democracy in the Park," held Sept. 26 and Oct. 3.

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