Republican lawmakers order an audit of Wisconsin’s elections

MADISON – Republican lawmakers launched an audit of Wisconsin’s elections Thursday, three months after Donald Trump lost at the ballot box and in a string of lawsuits.   

The review by the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau will look at some issues that have faced scrutiny from courts and election observers, such as how the state maintains its voter rolls and when it allows voters to get absentee ballots without showing IDs.  

Rep. Samantha Kerkman, a Salem Lakes Republican and co-chairwoman of the Joint Legislative Audit Committee, said she wanted to make sure voters are confident that elections are fair.

“It is the cornerstone of our government,” she said. 

Her committee approved the audit along party lines Thursday after an hours-long hearing.

The hearing included testimony from the state’s top elections official as well as lawmakers, young children who quoted from the Bible and a woman who read a computer’s IP address as she asked questions about the accuracy of electronic voting. No significant problems were found with Wisconsin’s voting machines after audits and recounts in 2016 and 2020. 

Democrats said they trusted State Auditor Joe Chrisman to handle the proposed review fairly but feared Republicans would use it to disparage an election that Joe Biden narrowly won. 

“Divisions are more pronounced now than ever and my fear is — and I hope it’s just a fear — that this audit will be a vehicle for more distrust and more misinformation,” said Sen. Melissa Agard, a Madison Democrat who sits on the audit committee. 

The audit, which will take months to complete, will broadly look at whether the state’s bipartisan Elections Commission and municipal clerks follow all election laws, how they use electronic voting machines and how they handle complaints they receive.

Trump and his supporters filed a barrage of election lawsuits in Wisconsin but lost all of them. The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled against Trump in a series of 4-3 rulings that found he and his backers had brought meritless claims or waited too long to file their cases.

The audit likely will revisit some or all of the matters the high court considered.

Voter rolls. During Thursday’s committee hearing, Kerkman and others focused some of their questions on the state’s voter rolls.

The state Supreme Court is considering a lawsuit over whether the Elections Commission is required to quickly remove people from the rolls after notifying them it believes they have moved. An appeals court last year found the commission has handled the voter rolls properly, but the Supreme Court will have the final say on the matter. 

Confined voters. Republicans have raised concerns about a provision of state law that allows voters to receive absentee ballots without showing an ID if they declare that they are indefinitely confined because of age or disability. 

The number of voters who identified themselves as confined more than tripled in 2020 as voters increasingly turned to absentee voting because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Records show 80% of the 238,000 indefinitely confined voters in the state have an ID on file or have shown one at a recent election.

Witness addresses. For the last four years, the Elections Commission has allowed clerks to fill in the addresses of witnesses on envelopes for absentee ballots when they fail to provide them completely. In many cases, the clerks add the municipality or state when the witnesses forget to do that. 

Republicans questioned that practice last fall, even though they backed it when it was adopted in 2016. 

“Democracy in the Park.” Republicans have objected to “Democracy in the Park” events held in Madison last fall where voters turned in absentee ballots to poll workers who were stationed in more than 200 parks. 

Madison officials contended the arrangement was legal, but critics questioned whether the city had conducted voting earlier than state law allows.

Nursing homes. Also Thursday, another legislative committee effectively told the Elections Commission it needed to change how it is handling voting at nursing homes. 

Because of the pandemic, the commission has told clerks to mail absentee ballots to nursing homes instead of delivering them by hand and assisting residents with voting, as spelled out in state law. 

Commissioners have said that approach was necessary because many nursing homes aren’t allowing visitors. But Republican lawmakers said they don’t have that power because of the way the state law is written. 

The Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules on party lines approved a motion Thursday telling the commission to stop issuing such guidance unless it gets permission from lawmakers. 

The commission is to discuss the issue next month, but the move by legislators could change how voting is conducted at nursing homes for the April 6 election for state schools superintendent. 

Contact Patrick Marley at patrick.marley@jrn.com. Follow him on Twitter at @patrickdmarley.