'I don't expect it to end': Assembly leaders to focus on elections, crime proposals next year
MADISON, Wis. (CBS 58) --The leader of Assembly Republicans has no plans to slow down efforts to reform the state's elections commission and put forth bills to change election laws in the new year. Meanwhile, Democrats are focused on preserving election procedures.
The Republican leader of the Assembly, Rep. Robin Vos (R-Rochester), said next year his caucus will again attempt to pass a host of election bills that aim to change election laws in response to their ongoing criticism of how the 2020 election was administered.
Republican-authored bills such as ending photo ID exemptions for indefinitely confined voters, restricting who can return absentee ballots, limiting ballot drop boxes in the state and banning election officials from filling in missing information on ballot envelopes are among some of the proposals Democratic Governor Tony Evers vetoed this year.
Vos said some of the same bills, along with new proposals regarding Wisconsin's elections, will be their focus in 2022.
"We have to have more confidence in our election, that's probably the thing that I would pick as number one to say, look, we had an audit that showed the Wisconsin Elections Commission had major issues," said Vos.
Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz (D-Oshkosh), who announced he's stepping down from the leadership post in January, said Democrats are "lucky" to have Gov. Evers in office to block GOP election proposals. However, that could change if Wisconsinites elect a Republican governor in 2022.
"Governor Evers stands in complete contrast to the circus that we're seeing," said Hintz. "The ideological barbs, the extremists, the attacks on our elections…he's going to stand up for those things."
Legal challenges and recounts in Wisconsin confirm Joe Biden narrowly won the presidential election. Despite that, Speaker Vos and several Republicans continue to attack WEC, and the administrator Meagan Wolfe, for decisions the commission made last year during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Over a dozen Republican lawmakers, including Vos, have asked for Wolfe to resign. Wolfe has refused to step down and has said criticism from GOP leaders is "partisan politics at its worst."
It comes after some allegations of voter fraud in Racine County and a report by the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau that found no evidence of widespread voter fraud, but did make 48 recommendations to improve how elections operate.
Another issue Republicans are taking aim at is when local clerks were told last year not to send special voting deputies into nursing homes. Instead, WEC issued guidance encouraging clerks to send absentee ballots to allow residents to vote in an attempt to limit the spread of COVID-19 at those facilities.
Vos, who hired Michael Gableman to investigate the 2020 election, said his goal is not to overturn the election results but to restore faith in future elections.
Gableman, whose review is anticipated to cost taxpayers $676,000, last year stated without evidence the election was stolen. Vos refused to call unproven claims the election was stolen from Trump a conspiracy theory during an interview with CBS 58.
Hintz believes the ongoing efforts to change election laws, and making false claims the election was stolen, are threats against democracy.
"I think it shows you the extreme they're willing to go to, but I don't expect it to end," Hintz said. "Most people would be ashamed, but they'll just keep going. It's really about voter subversion and that's something everybody should be scared about."
Reforming WEC, not eliminating it
The Republican speaker said he does not support calls for a major overhaul of WEC or outright eliminating the agency, which some Republican lawmakers have asked for.
Instead, Vos wants to see reforms and new leadership at the agency ahead of the 2022 elections.
"I think the problem with WEC is they're not following the law," Vos said. "I think the problem is we really haven't had a system work and run like it was intended."
Vos wants the bipartisan commission to go through the administrative rules process before issuing guidance to clerks about the election to "make sure the Legislature can weigh in."
Before the November 2020 election, Republicans did not pass any bills to provide guidance to election officials on how to administer elections during the pandemic.
When it comes to reforming the elections commission, one idea includes giving the secretary of state office more oversight.
State Rep. Amy Loudenbeck (R-Clinton) announced her bid for secretary of state and said if elected, she would "serve as a check" on the elections commission.
Another proposal in the works includes introducing a ballot measure that would bypass Gov. Evers in order to change how elections are run.
The effort is being led by the conservative group Common Sense Wisconsin. Bill McCoshen, who leads the policy board for the group, said he met with former White House spokesman Hogan Gidley in October to discuss the idea.
Gidley works with the American First Policy Institute as the director of the Center for Election Integrity and, McCoshen said, he expressed interest in ways to work around the governor to pass election laws in Wisconsin.
"This would take the governor out of the process and put the power in the hands of the people," said McCoshen. "I'm hopeful they will support it because it gives us a better chance to get it through the Republican-led Legislature."
Vos said he's open to the idea but acknowledged it would take years to go into effect. The measure would require changing the state's constitution, which needs to pass two consecutive sessions in the Legislature.
McCoshen envisions the constitutional amendment to target private election grants issued to more than 200 municipalities in 2020 to help officials run elections during the pandemic. Most of the grants were dispersed to Wisconsin's five largest cities.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg paid for the $10 million grants which Republicans argue largely favored Democratic strongholds in the state.
Preventing outside groups from funding elections is what McCoshen wants to put an end to. He also supports banning WEC from issuing last-minute changes to election procedures.
"There is no question election integrity is the number one issue for Republican voters, and so far, Republican lawmakers have been unable to deliver what the voters have wanted," McCoshen said.
Tough on crime proposals such as bail reform and revoking probation for repeat offenders are also top of mind for Republicans to address next year, Vos said.
Both proposals are not new concepts at the Capitol, but are being reintroduced in wake of the tragic event in Waukesha where Darrell Brooks is accused of plowing through the Christmas parade, killing six and injuring dozens.
State Rep. Cindi Duchow (R-Delafield) reintroduced a constitutional amendment that would remove restrictions judges face when it comes to setting bail.
Democrats rather focus their energy on bills to expand expungement eligibility on criminal records.
Wisconsin joins only a handful of states that set age limits for expungement, and it's the only state to require these decisions nbbe made during the time of sentencing by a judge.
"We want ideas that will not negatively impact people who are making bad decisions early in their life, and the hope is they can then come back and be productive members of the workforce," said Hintz.