Republican lawmakers seek to overhaul voting in Wisconsin, including new rules for absentee ballots

MADISON – Republican lawmakers are proposing to overhaul voting in Wisconsin following an unprecedented number of mail-in ballots and an election cycle full of unfounded allegations of widespread voter fraud by former President Donald Trump.  

The package of bills released Monday would put in place new rules for absentee voters, a voting group targeted by attorneys representing the former president who unsuccessfully sought to change the outcome of Wisconsin’s presidential contest that President Joe Biden won by just about 21,000 votes.

The effort, being led by Sen. Duey Stroebel of Saukville, would require absentee voters to provide an ID for every election, limit who can automatically receive absentee ballots for every election and create more paperwork for those who vote early in clerk’s offices. 

The proposals would also put new limits on when voters are considered indefinitely confined because of age or disability. Under a long-standing law, confined voters do not have to show ID to receive absentee ballots and do not have to regularly reapply for ballots. 

Stroebel said the bills seek to restore confidence in the election process, citing a 2019 Gallup poll showing 59% of those surveyed said they had little confidence in the honesty of U.S. elections. 

The poll was conducted during the spring of 2019, after U.S. intelligence agencies confirmed the existence of foreign interference in the 2016 presidential election. Gallup noted such doubts have existed since 2012, however, peaking in 2016. 

“We must ensure uniformity of process and transparency of conduct so all voters, regardless of political belief, trust the final outcome,” Stroebel said in a statement.

State Sen. Duey Stroebel

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers is likely to veto much of the package if it gets to him, but the bills signal what voting policies Republicans may put in place if they defeat him in 2022.

In December, Evers said he would veto efforts to narrow the state’s indefinitely confined law, saying, “The idea that we’re going to solve these problems by making voting more difficult — I just can’t accept (that).”

He said he wouldn’t be willing to sign such a measure even if it were paired with election changes he supports, such as allowing clerks to count absentee ballots before Election Day.

Under one bill released Monday, voters under the age of 65 who say they are confined to their homes could no longer claim the status without a medical professional’s endorsement. 

The bill also would force election clerks to remove the indefinitely confined status for any voter who applied for it between last March and the November election. It would clarify in state law that the threat of a pandemic may not be used to apply for the status — advice clerks in Dane and Milwaukee counties briefly gave to voters last spring amid voter anxiety over voting in person. The state Supreme Court later ordered the advice be banned

Election clerks also would be required to remove the status if they receive information disputing the voter’s declaration, which could include an eyewitness observation or a social media post showing the voter was not confined to his or her home. 

An affected voter could reapply to claim the status with a medical professional’s opinion, according to a spokesman for Stroebel.

Barbara Beckert, director of the Milwaukee office of Disability Rights Wisconsin, said requiring disabled voters to get signed statements from their health care providers would force them to make doctor visits that wouldn’t be covered by insurance. Such fees would amount to illegal poll taxes, she contended.

“If the goal is to reduce the number of people with disabilities voting in Wisconsin, this bill will do it,” Beckert said by email.

About 215,000 Wisconsin voters identified themselves as indefinitely confined in November, up from about 67,000 in the 2016 presidential election. While confined voters are not required to provide a copy of an ID, about 80% of them have an ID on file or have shown an ID at the polls in recent years, state data shows.

Another bill from Stroebel would require absentee voters to submit a copy of an ID for every election. Now, voters have to provide an ID the first time they request an absentee ballot, but not after that. The local clerk keeps a copy of their ID on file.

Under current law, the ID requirement does not apply to absentee voters who are confined or live overseas. The bill would end those exemptions, meaning those voters would have to provide an ID for every election.

The bill would end the ability of confined voters and overseas voters to automatically have absentee ballots sent to them for every election. It would also end the ability of other voters to ask for all absentee ballots for a given year to be automatically sent to them. (Military voters could continue to receive absentee ballots automatically.)

The bill would also create more paperwork for those who vote early in clerks’ offices. Now, such voters fill out their ballots along with a form on the absentee ballot envelope that serves as both their ballot application and certification that they are the ones who filled out the ballot. The bill would require them to file a separate application as well.

Another bill from Stroebel would require nursing home administrators to tell relatives of their residents when clerks known as special voting deputies will be on-site to deliver ballots. The bill would also make it a felony for nursing home employees to try to influence residents’ votes.

Some Republicans have questioned whether nursing home employees played an outsized role in influencing residents, particularly last year, when most residents voted by mail because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Another bill would bar local governments from accepting private donations to help them conduct their elections. Private donations to the state would have to be distributed to local governments equally based on their populations under the bill.

The measure is a response to $6.3 million in grants provided to Milwaukee and four other Wisconsin cities by the Center for Tech and Civic Life. The center is funded by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan.

Republicans said it was unfair for a private entity to help pay for running elections in parts of the state. Courts threw out lawsuits that sought to halt the donations.

Under another proposal, state law would be modified to allow in-state family members or a designee of absentee voters to return ballots on their behalf. 

The bill also would allow municipalities to designate a site other than the clerk’s office as a location to collect absentee ballots.

The site may not be used by voters to apply for an absentee ballot or to cast an in-person ballot, effectively banning events known as “Democracy in the Park,” which were held in 2020 by Madison election officials to collect absentee ballots and help voters apply for absentee ballots.

At them, poll workers stationed in more than 200 locations around the capital city were available to accept absentee ballots that voters received through the mail; show voters how they can request absentee ballots; or help them register to vote. 

Contact Molly Beck at molly.beck@jrn.com. Follow her on Twitter at @MollyBeck.