Steven Walters
The State of Politics

Both Parties Back Election Law Changes

Legislators actually agree on at least two reforms.

By - Dec 28th, 2020 11:22 am
Ballot processing at Milwaukee's central count facility. File photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Ballot processing at Milwaukee’s central count facility. File photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Breaking news. This just in. Stop the presses.

Whatever trite and overused expression you favor, this news is unusual.

Senate Majority Leader-elect Devin LaMahieu, of Oostburg, leader of the conservative Republican bloc that controls the Senate, and liberal Democratic Sen. Tim Carpenter, of Milwaukee, whose party hasn’t had Senate control for a decade, agree: State law should be changed to allow absentee ballots to be counted before 7 a.m. on Election Day.

It may be one of the few things that Republicans, who control the Legislature and who will again soon rewrite some election laws, and Democrats agree on it. But it’s a start.

Wisconsin’s Nov. 3 presidential election set records: 3.2 million votes cast, including 1.9 million absentee ballots cast either in person, handed to election clerks or plopped into secure drop boxes. But controversies surrounding Democrat Joe Biden‘s 20,600-vote win over President Donald Trump have revealed gray arenas in election laws, rewritten by Republican Gov. Scott Walker and Republican legislators between 2011 and 2018, that must be clarified.

One example of how passionate those controversies were: The chief lawyer for Trump’s Wisconsin campaign, James Troupis, told the State Supreme Court his own absentee ballot should be thrown out, along with 220,000 other votes cast in Milwaukee and Dane counties.

But let’s circle back to the rare Kumbaya moment between LaMahieu and Carpenter. In a WisconsinEye interview last week, LaMahieu said. “Right now, it’s unfortunate after a close election, there are segments of the population that have absolutely no confidence in our election system.”

One reason for that, LaMahiue added, is that election officials can’t tabulate absentee ballots before election day. With record numbers of voters using absentee ballots, it takes clerks in Dane and Milwaukee counties “all day” to count them, so Milwaukee County officials release absentee vote totals in the middle of the night that heavily favor Democrats — a timeline that makes voters statewide suspicious, LaMahieu said.

Amen, said Carpenter, who recommended a bipartisan panel of lawmakers that would draft clarifying changes to election laws. “Simply allowing absentee ballots to be tabulated by at least the Monday before election day would give our overworked poll workers more time to efficiently process absentee ballots,” Carpenter said, adding:

“Wisconsin is one of the few states that doesn’t allow absentee ballots to be processed before Election Day. This simple change would stop the false accusation that tens of thousands of ballots are secretly being dumped after midnight, changing the outcome of the election. We all know our current process and know that is not true.”

Another thing that must be clarified, Carpenter added: “How do we deal with voters in nursing homes that have demonstrated signs of dementia: who helps them vote? Does the care worker? Does the son or daughter or spouse? Who determines whether or not that voter’s intent was influenced by either caregivers or family?”

Those questions resulted from testimony before a joint meeting of Assembly and Senate elections committees. Lawmakers were told that some nursing home residents were told how to vote, were not allowed to vote or had their votes discarded.

Republican Sen. Kathy Bernier, who presided over dozens of elections as Chippewa County clerk and who will chair the Senate Committee on  Elections, Election Process Reform and Ethics, was also very concerned about testimony on voting in nursing homes. “Clearly there is a lack of trust and respect that plagued this entire election process,” she said. “It may have been on a limited basis, it may have been more pervasive.”

In a letter to Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, who must sign into law or veto any election-law changes Republican legislators pass, 15 of the 21 Republican state senators — including LaMahieu and Bernier — called for answers to questions that included:

-”What are the appropriate venues and methods for ballots to be returned? Were ballot harvesting events, such as [Madison’s] Democracy in the Park, appropriate venues for safe and secure ballot collection?

-”How can ‘indefinitely confined’ voters be protected from exploitation?”

-”Is it appropriate for private special-interest money to be inequitably distributed to certain communities?

-”Should clerks be ‘curing’ incomplete or mismarked ballots and witness statements?”

Lawmakers don’t have much time to clarify election laws. On April 6, voters must elect a new superintendent of public instruction and fill two vacant legislative seats.

Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Contact him at stevenscotwalters@gmail.com

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