Republicans introduce election bills, sideline GOP effort to allow some ballot drop boxes

NOW: Republicans introduce election bills, sideline GOP effort to allow some ballot drop boxes

MADISON,  Wis. (CBS 58) -- Republican lawmakers are introducing a series of bills that would bring changes to state election laws, including limiting who can identify as an indefinitely confined voter and banning private grants to fund elections.

The bills reflect GOP concerns raised after the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau found no evidence of widespread voter fraud, but made dozens of recommendations to improve elections after their review of the 2020 presidential election. The proposals also mirror findings from the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty's election review.

State Sen. Kathy Bernier (R-Chippewa Fall), former county clerk and chair of the Senate elections committee, introduced the proposals on Friday along with six GOP colleagues. Bernier said the proposals will fix issues raised by voters after the fallout of the 2020 presidential election.

Indefinitely confined voters would have to show proof of a photo ID or the last four digits of their Social Security number, which is currently not required under state law, under one bill. It also would not allow someone to apply for indefinitely confined status due to reasons linked to the pandemic.

If a voter falsely claims they are indefinitely confined, they could face a $1,000 fine or up to six months in jail, under the proposal. Election officials saw a surge of new applications for homebound voters during the pandemic and Republicans also want to require individuals who applied for the status between March 12, 2020 and Nov. 6, 2020 reapply and submit a new application.

Disability Rights Wisconsin said in a statement they are reviewing the proposal to "ensure there are no unintended consequences that may create new barriers for indefinitely confined voters."

"Voters who rely on this provision often have very difficult lives and struggle to participate in our electoral system. The indefinitely confined status is vital to upholding their constitutional right to cast a ballot," said Barbara Becket, director of advocacy for Disability Rights Wisconsin.

The bill is unlikely to be signed by Governor Tony Evers who vetoed six GOP election proposals last year, calling the measures anti-democratic. State Sen. Duey Strobel (R-Saukville) defended the bills noting they incorporate legislative recommendations from the nonpartisan audit bureau.

"[The audit] pointed out issues in our election process, that's what these bills are reacting to," said Stroebel. "If you don't like these bills, you might as well just blow up the Legislative Audit Bureau that has been around forever and has provided nonpartisan advice."

Under another bill, special voting deputies would not be allowed to enter nursing homes to help residents cast an absentee ballot if municipalities have declared a public health emergency, forcing facilities to close due to an infectious disease. Instead, nursing home workers could step in to assist residents vote during a pandemic if special voting deputies could not enter the facility. 

The move comes after the Racine County sheriff claimed they have evidence the Wisconsin elections commissioner broke the law for sending absentee ballots to nursing homes instead of special voting deputies to help residents vote during the pandemic. The sheriff's investigation alleges the decision resulted in employees at Mount Pleasant nursing home helping some incompetent seniors vote.

WEC has dismissed those claims, arguing the guidance was necessary to allow people to vote during the pandemic.

Racine officials have recommended criminal charges for five out of six WEC commissioners to the Racine County district attorney, but Racine County District Attorney Tricia Hanson has yet to file charges or respond publicly about it.

Banning private grants to fund elections and prohibiting local clerks from filling in missing information on absentee ballot envelopes are two additional measures proposed by Republicans.

The election grants have been a key focus of Assembly Republicans' ongoing taxpayer-funded election investigation led by retired Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman, who claims the money helped President Joe Biden get elected.

During the 2020 presidential election, more than 200 municipalities were distributed more than $10 million in election grants from the Center for Tech and Civic Life, a group funded by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

Republicans have long expressed opposition to the funds because they believe it increased voter turnout in largely Democratic strongholds in the state, such as Milwaukee, Madison, Racine, Green Bay, and Kenosha.

Courts have ruled the election grants were not illegal, which were also given to areas that former President Donald Trump won.

Another bill would require WEC to work with state agencies to track voters who may have moved, died or committed felonies.

Trump's Impact on Ballot Drop Boxes

A central component missing from Republicans' election reform package is rules surrounding absentee ballot drop boxes.

Ever since leaving office, former President Donald Trump has blamed drop boxes for his defeat against President Joe Biden, who narrowly won the battleground state by about 21,000 votes.

Some Republicans have sought to limit ballot drop boxes after Trump suggested without evidence drop boxes were a source of fraud during the 2020 presidential election.

When Sen. Bernier drafted a bill that would have allowed some drop boxes to be monitored by 24-hour surveillance, Trump slammed the idea, calling Republicans "fools" for allowing drop boxes in Wisconsin.

Bernier said she was asked to remove the bill from the package last week and assumed it was because of Trump's statement. She declined to say who told her to table the legislation.

"All I know, I was asked to remove it," Bernier said. "I firmly believe well-regulated drop boxes are probably safer than a mailbox, but I told my staff if this means it's going to be a hold-up with my Republican colleagues, then fine, we can take it out."

The former Chippewa County clerk was frustrated the proposal didn't make it into the package of election bills, adding "sometimes you have to pick and choose your battles in the Legislature."

Trump's comment also prompted Assembly Speaker Robin Vos to clarify his stance on drop boxes after his attorney signaled some support for them in 2020.

Last week, Vos said he doesn't support an "expansion" of drop boxes, then a day later dodged reporters' questions asking if he supports them at all or using them in limited circumstances.

State law is silent on drop boxes, which is why Republicans want to set guidelines on where they can be located beyond the local clerk's office.

The use of drop boxes is also the focus of an ongoing court battle where Republicans are asking the state Supreme Court to rule whether they can be used in future elections. More than 500 were placed throughout the state during the 2020 election to give voters more options to cast their vote during the pandemic.

Bernier also expressed concerns with some Republicans who align themselves with Trump's false claims the election was stolen and said she worries how it could impact GOP turnout in upcoming elections.

"It doesn't bode well in my sense that we are saying the system is crooked and you can't rely on it, yet we want people to come out and vote," Bernier said. "We just need to move on."

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