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Wisconsin Republicans send election bills to governor
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Wisconsin Republicans send election bills to governor

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The Assembly sent bills to Democratic Gov. Tony Evers on Tuesday that would make it more difficult for the elderly and disabled to cast absentee ballots and prohibit officials from filling in missing information on the envelopes of returned absentee ballots.

Evers is expected to veto all of the GOP-backed measures, which passed with all Republicans in support and Democrats against.

Across the country, local officials faced an extraordinary challenge this year: How to allow Americans to cast ballots in the November election without exacerbating the ongoing pandemic or overwhelming the postal system. That meant changing everything from how ballots were collected to how polling places worked. But in Madison, the record voter turnout and quick counting process suggest success. On this episode, Abby and Natalie talk with Madison City Clerk Maribeth Witzel-Behl and Jennifer Haar, a member of the city’s Racial Equity and Social Justice Initiatives' Core Team, which conducted an equity analysis of the April election, about what worked in November, what’s still left to fix, and what changes may stick post-pandemic.

Democrats derided the bills as attempts to suppress voter turnout.

“There is no question this is all part of a national movement to undermine our elections so that Republicans can continue to cling to power with the support of only a minority of voters,” said Rep. Mark Spreitzer, D-Beloit.

Conservatives are pushing more than a dozen election bills following former President Donald Trump’s narrow loss in battleground Wisconsin to President Joe Biden. Republican backers say the bills would address shortcomings in Wisconsin election law that were exposed during the November 2020 election.

Opponents say they’re an attempt to perpetuate the lie that Trump actually won and are meant to disenfranchise voter groups that tend to back Democrats.

“This is a pile of bills built on conspiracy theories and lies,” said Rep. Lisa Subeck, D-Madison.

Republicans defended the bills as taking steps to ensure that elections are fair.

Wisconsin Republicans have already approved a review of the 2020 election by the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau and hired retired police officers to investigate unfounded reports of widespread voter fraud. Trump’s defeat was upheld following recounts in Milwaukee and Dane counties and in numerous state and federal lawsuits.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said he expected results of the state audit and the other investigation by the retired police officers he hired by this fall. He said Republicans wanted to review what a Republican-ordered election audit in Arizona reveals, but he didn’t anticipate doing a similar forensic exam of ballots in Wisconsin given the other probes already being done.

One of the bills that was passed would require most elderly and disabled people who are indefinitely confined to show photo ID to vote absentee; require all absentee voters to fill out more paperwork and show their ID every time they vote absentee, rather than just the first time; and require voters who are confined to apply to get an absentee ballot every year, rather than have them sent automatically.

Wisconsin’s disabled community has been outspoken against the proposed changes, saying they would create new barriers for people who cannot easily get to polling stations.

“These bills make it harder for voters who already face significant challenges to have their voices heard and their votes count,” said Beth Swedeen, executive director for the Wisconsin Board for People with Developmental Disabilities.

Other bills

Another passed bill would prohibit local elections officials from filling out missing voter information on the absentee ballot certificate, which also serves as the envelope that voters use to return ballots.

Trump sought to disqualify about 5,500 absentee ballots in Democratic-heavy Dane and Milwaukee counties, where election clerks filled in missing address information on certification envelopes.

Clerks had been filling in missing information on the certification envelopes for a dozen elections prior to November’s, based in part on guidance from the Wisconsin Elections Commission. After Trump lost, Republicans questioned the legality of the practice since state law doesn’t specifically allow it.

Under the bill, any absentee ballot missing information would be returned to the voter to fix. Officials who fill in the missing information would be committing election fraud, which is punishable by up to a $10,000 fine and three years in prison.

A third bill the Assembly passed would disallow ballot collection events any earlier than two weeks before an election. There could only be one collection site for absentee ballots and it would have to be located near the local clerk’s office and staffed by workers from those offices.

Republican supporters said the goal was to prevent “ballot harvesting” by disallowing events or locations where ballots could be collected.

“It’s a more secure chain of custody than we have now on the ballots,” said Rep. Tyler August, R-Lake Geneva, the bill’s sponsor.

That change is in response to the Democracy in the Park event held in Madison city parks last year, where poll workers collected absentee ballots before the early voting period started two weeks prior to the election.

Another passed bill would make it a felony for an employee of a nursing home or other care facility to coerce an occupant to apply for, or not apply for, an absentee ballot. It would also require the nursing home to provide notice to relatives when special voting deputies planned to be on hand to assist residents with casting their ballots.

Associated Press writer Todd Richmond contributed to this report.

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