Republicans defend new election bills, opponents criticize proposals at public hearing

NOW: Republicans defend new election bills, opponents criticize proposals at public hearing

MADISON, Wis. (CBS 58) -- A series of Republican bills that seek to overhaul elections are moving quickly through the Legislature after the Senate elections committee held a public hearing Monday on proposals that would limit who can claim indefinitely confined status and ban private grants to fund elections.

The public hearing comes days after Republicans introduced 11 election-related bills, including a proposal to amend the state constitution to prohibit government officials from accepting private money to fund elections.

The GOP-authored bills are almost certainly to be vetoed by Governor Tony Evers, but it does provide some insight on what changes the Republican-led Legislature is willing to make if Wisconsin elects a new governor this fall.

The proposals range from limiting who can claim indefinitely confined status, giving the GOP-led budget committee authority to fire and withhold funding from the Wisconsin Elections Commission, allowing leadership from both parties to hire a partisan attorney to serve on WEC, and prohibiting clerks from filling in missing information on absentee ballot envelopes.

Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg) testified and defended his bill that would require WEC lawyers to be partisan, instead of nonpartisan legal counsel that's used now.

"This change from nonpartisan to partisan council would advance transparency and guarantee viewpoint of diversity at [the] commission," LeMahieu said. "It also makes our appointees more informed by having someone on their side interpreting the law."

In a separate bill, the Joint Finance Committee that's controlled by Republicans would be allowed to fire and withhold funding from the state elections commission if they can prove they failed to follow election laws. The proposal would also apply to a host of state agencies if they don't comply with election laws or if the commission issued "erroneous guidance."

Many of the bills reflect frustration and concerns brought forth by Republicans after President Joe Biden beat Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election.

State Sen. Kathy Bernier (R-Chippewa Falls), chair of the Senate elections committee and a critic of Trump's false claims the election was stolen, drafted several of the proposals she said will clarify election laws and increase transparency.

"We were not prepared for a pandemic, and now, with many of our bills, we are trying to be prepared," said Bernier. "But with preparation there has to be checks and balances."

The package of election bills includes recommendations from the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau on how to improve elections, which also found no widespread fraud during its review of the 2020 election.

Voting advocacy groups that testified in opposition to the bills said they're supportive of finding ways to clarify election laws, but oppose proposals they believe will make it more difficult for people to vote.

Many groups, including the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, took aim at a bill that would change the qualifications for those who claim to be indefinitely confined.

"I'm very aware we can improve, but we don't have to make it more difficult to improve. We have to make it more accessible," said Debra Cronmiller, executive director of the League of Women Voters.

Homebound voters who are struggling to leave their household due to certain medical conditions apply for indefinitely confined status in order to receive an absentee ballot.

The bill would not allow voters to use a public health emergency, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, to declare they are indefinitely confined. It would also force those who applied for the status between March 12, 2020 and Nov. 6, 2020 to reapply. Those individuals would also have to submit a photo ID or the last four digits of their Social Security number, currently not required under state law.

Another proposal criticized by opponents was banning local clerks from filling in missing information on absentee ballot envelopes. Voting absentee became widely popular during the pandemic, which clerks say resulted in some voters not filling them out completely.

Under the GOP bill, a clerk could try and contact the voter if they are missing a witness signature or address, but if they don't get in contact with them, they wouldn't be allowed to count the ballot.

"Now making the witness fill out every one right or the voter's ballot is disqualified just adds another way to toss a good ballot in the wastebasket," said Matt Rothschild, executive director of Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. 

Bernier said the bill is necessary to for "statewide fairness and transparency," by clarifying in state statute what information is required on absentee ballots.

"A clerk can contact me to notify me there's missing information on my certificate envelope, then that's what we should do," Bernier said. "But no one should be altering someone else's document.""

The goal for Republicans is to pass these bills by March, which is usually when the Legislature wraps up their work during an election year.

Democrats have long argued the proposals are a waste of time because Gov. Evers is expected to veto them if they pass and reach his desk.

Support for Wolfe

The public hearing comes the same day a bipartisan group of Milwaukee business leaders signed a letter in support of state elections administer, Meagan Wolfe, who's been asked by some Republicans to resign and face criminal charges for how the election was run.

The Wisconsin Business Leaders for Democracy Coalition sent their letter to Wolfe and every state and municipal clerk who helps administer elections. It comes in wake of Republicans seeking to overhaul WEC and fire commissioners for their guidance issued during the 2020 presidential election when the pandemic created new challenges.

“The WEC and election administrators statewide have faced relentless threats over the past year just for doing their jobs," the letter states. "We hope this letter serves to remind them of how crucial their work is, and lets them know that the Wisconsin business community is behind them."

It’s the second time a letter in support has been circulated in Wisconsin after a bipartisan group of 50 election experts across the county touted Wolfe as "one of the most highly-skilled election administrators in the county."

Wolfe has refused to step down and dismisses claims the changes in election procedures during the pandemic was necessary to allow individuals the right to vote.

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