The state Senate voted to ban local governments from accepting private money to run elections, allow those monitoring a recount to get a closer look at the proceedings and open the door to DAs prosecuting election law violations outside their home districts.
The bills are the first in a series that Republicans are taking up in response to the often baseless claims then-President Trump made about the 2020 election as he lost Wisconsin by less than 21,000 votes to Joe Biden.
Dem Gov. Tony Evers is expected to veto the bills.
State Sen. Tim Carpenter, D-Milwaukee, knocked Republicans for continuing the “big lie” perpetuated by Trump. He accused Republicans of taking a “shotgun” approach to their effort, saying it would disenfranchise voters and could open the door to chaos at polling sites.
“My concern now is that things are getting a little crazy because some radical members feel that the election was stolen and President Trump is still President Trump,” Carpenter said.
One bill, SB 210, would require election officials to set up an area for recount observers that’s no more than 3 feet from the tables where ballots and other election-related materials are being examined and being processed. Current law sets the buffer at between 3 feet and 8 feet.
The bill also includes a provision that would create a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in prison and a fine of up to $1,000 for an election official who intentionally obstructs an observer’s access to watch election procedures.
Sen. Alberta Darling, who helped co-author the bill, defended it as a reasonable approach to address concerns from some activists that they weren’t able to adequately observe the proceedings during recounts that Trump sought in heavily Dem Dane and Milwaukee counties.
The River Hills Republican noted the original bill would’ve affected more than recount sites. It also would have required observation areas at polling sites to be set up no more than 3 feet from the proceedings. But that provision on polling sites was dropped to focus on recounts, which she said demanded more scrutiny as officials determine whether a ballot is valid.
She also rejected the suggestion that poll workers just doing their jobs would end up facing charges.
“It doesn’t say to poll workers if they make a mistake in how they do their business, they’re going to go to prison and have a $500 fine,” Darling said. “This bill goes to integrity with an election. It doesn’t talk about mistakes that might result out of confusion.”
The bill cleared along party lines 20-11.
The bills approved include:
*SB 207, which prohibits local governments from applying for and accepting private money to cover the costs of administering an election.
The bill originally would’ve allowed the Elections Commission to accept private money with conditions on how it could be spent. That would’ve included distributing the money to each municipality on a per capita basis. But it was amended to ban the commission from accepting private grants as well.
The bill grew out of concerns among Republicans over grants that municipalities accepted from a foundation largely funded by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. More than 200 communities in Wisconsin received grants, but Republicans focused on the money that went to the state’s five largest cities. They received the bulk of the money and voters in those areas went heavily for Biden.
It passed on a voice vote.
*SB 208, which would require the Elections Commission to post draft minutes of its meetings within 48 hours of a meeting or hearing. It would also have to post approved minutes within 48 hours after the members approve them. The original bill sought to require them to be posted within 24 hours of a meeting or hearing, but it was amended to relax the proposed requirement.
It passed on a voice vote.
*SB 213, which would allow district attorneys to investigate some election law violations in counties contiguous to theirs. Under current law, an alleged violation would have to be tried in the county where a defendant resides.
Under the bill, for example, the DAs in heavily GOP Waukesha and Ozaukee counties could open investigations into alleged violations in Milwaukee County, one of the most Democratic counties in the state.
It passed 20-11.
The Senate also overwhelmingly approved three bills making small changes to election procedures. Those bills cleared the Assembly last session before the controversy of the November election, but failed to get a Senate vote after the chamber adjourned early as the COVID-19 pandemic spread.
Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, was the only no vote on SB 180, which would make a series of changes that include matching state law to the Elections Commission’s election day manual on curbside voting. Under current law, election inspectors who are aware a voter has a disability that prevents them from entering the polling place must allow the person to use curbside voting. The proposed change would allow anyone unable to enter the polling site to use curbside voting. Nass believes the change would create a loophole to allow ballot harvesting.