Wisconsin Public Radio

Bill Allowing Early Count of Absentee Ballots Looks Dead

Had near-unanimous GOP support, with other provisions attached to it Democrats opposed.

By , Wisconsin Public Radio - Mar 8th, 2022 01:09 pm
An absentee ballot. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

An absentee ballot. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

An effort to give certain election workers a one-day head start on canvassing absentee ballots in Milwaukee and other Wisconsin communities appears to have died in the state Legislature.

GOP leaders did not include a so-called “early count” bill that passed the state Assembly last week on the state Senate’s calendar for Tuesday, which is expected to be the Legislature’s final session day of 2022. While the plan enjoyed broad Republican support in the Legislature, it came under attack from an outspoken segment of the GOP base.

Counting ballots has come under increasing scrutiny in Wisconsin as a growing number of voters choose to vote absentee. Nearly 2 million Wisconsin residents voted absentee in 2020.

Even though the ballots might arrive at a clerk’s office weeks before an election, poll workers can’t begin processing them until Election Day. That can prove challenging in the 39 cities, villages and towns that tally absentee ballots at a central count location instead of at a polling place.

That’s especially true at Milwaukee’s central count location, where an influx of absentee ballots have delayed a final count until the wee hours of the morning the day after Election Day. Even though election officials warned in advance that it would take time to process the ballots, those middle-of-the-night results have been used by former President Donald Trump to falsely claim the 2020 election was “stolen” from him.

The Assembly bill that appears to have failed would have allowed central count locations to begin processing absentee ballots from 7 a.m. until 8 p.m. the day before the election. The bill also added new reporting requirements, mandating clerks post updates on the total number of absentee ballots and how many are counted throughout the day on Election Day.

State senators passed their own version of the bill last month, but the Assembly never voted on it. Both chambers have to pass the identical bill in order to send it to the governor’s desk.

While nearly all Republican legislators voted for one version of the plan or the other, GOP activists who continue to cast doubt on the results of the 2020 presidential election have worked to kill the plans over the past week.

Former Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke called on Republicans to contact their legislators to kill the bill, asserting that it “opens avenues for Democrats to manipulate our elections.”

Republican Kevin Nicholson, who’s running for governor, said on Twitter on Sunday he was “glad the grassroots stopped” the plan, saying Assembly Speaker Rovin Vos, R-Rochester — “his Madison Machine and my primary opponent” — were wrong to support it.

A spokesperson for the GOP front-runner in the race for governor, former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, did not immediately respond to an email asking whether Kleefisch supported the bill. State Rep. Tim Ramthun, R-Campbellsport, who is also running for governor, missed the vote on the bill that passed the Assembly because he left session early to catch a flight to the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando.

In his own Tweet, Vos criticized Nicholson, noting the bill enjoyed almost unanimous GOP support.

“It just shows how cynical and desperate Nicholson is,” Vos said. “This should have broad bi-partisan support.”

A version of the bill introduced in the 2019 session had bipartisan sponsors, but Democrats voted against this year’s version of the bill in both the Senate and Assembly. They argued it was attached to too many other provisions, like additional deadlines for clerks.

In the run up to the 2020 election, Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson also endorsed the idea of letting clerks count absentee ballots before the election.

Wisconsin bill to allow for early canvass of absentee ballots likely dead was originally published by Wisconsin Public Radio.

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