Testimony to the Senate Committee on Elections, Election Process Reform, and Ethics in Opposition to SB 934, SB 935, SB 936, SB 937, SB 939, SB 940, SB 941, SB 943, and SJR 101
February 7, 2022
Distinguished Chair and other Distinguished Members of this Committee:
I’m Matt Rothschild, the executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. Since 1995, we’ve been tracking and exposing the money in Wisconsin politics, and we’ve been advocating for a broad range of pro-democracy reforms.
Before I get going, I would be remiss if I failed to acknowledge the tremendous public service that the chair of this committee has rendered in her career, first as a county clerk, then as a member of the Assembly, and most recently here in the Senate.
We may not agree on a lot of ideological issues, Madame Chair, but we certainly agree on the need to defend our democracy. I really appreciate your outspokenness on this bedrock principle, and your frank acknowledgment of the severity of the threat posed to our democracy by those who refuse to accept the legitimacy of the 2020 elections and instead peddle one lie after another and one smear after another for their own political gain or personal gratification.
You’ve been a profile of courage, and you’ll be missed, and I wish you all the best in your retirement.
I’ve got some specific problems with many of these bills, as well as with the Joint Resolution.
But rather than go tediously through that itemization, let me instead make a few general remarks and then offer just a couple germane points, if I might.
First, I would like to underline an observation that Republican Senator Rob Cowles has made about our elections. He noted that our elections are “safe and secure.”
Second, there has been a drumbeat of baseless accusations and character assassinations against the dedicated administrator and the tireless staff of the Wisconsin Elections Commission, which has got to stop. It’s grossly unfair to them, and if it keeps up, we won’t be able to attract any talented people to administer our elections in this state.
And third, the endless fishing expedition being conducted by Michael Gableman and the constant smoke machine that some other partisans keep revving up about the November 2020 elections only serve to undermine the faith of the Wisconsin public in our elections and in our democracy.
That’s not healthy. And that’s got to stop, too.
And frankly, I worry that, when taken as a whole, the barge carrying all these new bills today may also be billowing out more smoke.
This is not to say that I disagree with everything in all these bills. Not at all. For instance, the bills by the Chair clarify a lot of processes and terms that needed clarification.
And I certainly agree that we should set clear rules for our elections, but let’s make sure that those rules are fair.
And let’s protect our freedom to vote rather than erect one barrier after another to the exercise of that fundamental freedom.
Unfortunately, some of these bills do erect such barriers.
First of all, two bills would make voting by absentee ballot more difficult for all voters in Wisconsin.
SB 935 would render an absentee ballot null and void for the pettiest of reasons. For instance, if I’m a witness for the absentee voter and I print my name, and I sign my name, and I put Madison, WI, down as my residence but I neglect to put my street down, should the voter I’m witnessing be disqualified because of that omission? The bill says yes, and that seems ridiculous to me. Even requiring a witness seems like a stretch to me, since the voter already is swearing about his or her identity. Now to make the witness have to fill out everything just right or the voter’s ballot is disqualified just adds another way to toss a perfectly good ballot into the waste basket.
SB 939 would prohibit the Wisconsin Elections Commission or any local clerk from sending out absentee ballot applications, en masse, to registered voters, as was prudently done during the pandemic. Our ability to exercise our freedom to vote by mail should not be needlessly curtailed by this blanket prohibition. Why shouldn’t the Elections Commission be allowed to do this? If we want more people to be able to exercise their freedom to vote in our democracy, sending everyone an absentee ballot application makes sense, in general. And in specific, it makes a whole lot of sense during a pandemic. But this bill would nix both those options.
Second, one bill would make voting by absentee ballot especially more difficult for those in residential care facilities or retirement homes.
SB 935 would paternalistically require the notification of relatives of residents in long-term care facilities or retirement homes as to when special voting deputies are going to be there. Residents don’t need their relatives looking over their shoulders when they’re voting. This is an invasion of their privacy. Unless they have a legal guardian, residents should not have their freedom to vote interfered with in this obnoxious manner. What if they don’t get along with “the relatives for whom the home or facility has contact information”? What business is it of the relatives, seriously?
SB 935 would also needlessly prohibit a personal care voting assistant from helping any resident of a residential care facility or qualified retirement home to register to vote. If the personal care voting assistant is there to help the resident fill out an absentee ballot, why can’t the assistant help the resident register to vote? That distinction makes no sense. Plus, nursing homes that receive Medicare or Medicaid funding are required to support the residents’ right to vote. That should include supporting residents who want to register to vote.
Third, one of the bills, SB 934, could erroneously toss voters from the voting rolls.
This bill would have the Wisconsin Elections Commission rely on the Electronic Registration Information Center (otherwise known as ERIC) to determine whether a voter has moved. Following that determination, the Commission must send a letter or a postcard to the voter. If the voter doesn’t respond, the voter becomes unregistered. The problem with this is that the Wisconsin Election Commission’s own data in 2020 showed that 7.07 percent of the voters who became unregistered because of ERIC’s data actually had never moved and were wrongly deactivated. Such a high error is not acceptable when it comes to our freedom to vote.
Fourth, several of these bills would hog-tie the Wisconsin Elections Commission.
SB 940 would allow the Joint Finance Committee to gouge the staff or the funds of the Elections Commission if Joint Finance, on its own, says that the Elections Commission or the Department of Transportation or the Department of Corrections or the Department of Health Services failed to comply with any election law. That would give Joint Finance a huge whip over the heads of the Elections Commission, with no decent check on that unilateral power.
SB 941 would give the Joint Finance Committee and the Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules the authority to block federal funds and federal guidance, which will make it very difficult for the Commission to do its job. It’s also of dubious constitutionality: States aren’t allowed to disregard federal guidance on the conduct of federal elections, for instance.
SB 941 would also inject hyper-partisanship at the staff level by mandating that each major political party gets its own legal counsel on the staff of the Wisconsin Elections Commission. The last thing we need is more partisan haggling at the Wisconsin Elections Commission.
SB 943 would require the Elections Commission to be nit-picked and hyper-monitored by the Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules. Every week, the Elections Commission would have to give to JCRAR “all documents and communications from the commission that the commission issued in the previous week that are applicable to municipal clerks generally and qualify as guidance documents.” Are you going to allow the Elections Commission to do its job, or are you going to kill it by a thousand cuts?
So these are some of my biggest concerns.
Above all, I would appreciate it if we could all agree that:
- The November 2020 elections were legitimate and move on,
- The staff of the Wisconsin Elections Commission has been doing an admirable job under incredibly difficult circumstances, and
- In Wisconsin, and in America, we all should have our freedom to vote protected.
Thanks for considering my views, and I welcome any questions you might have.