Assembly elections committee considers bills on ballot signatures, campaign finance rules

The Wisconsin Assembly Committee on Campaigns and Elections held a public hearing Wednesday for two bipartisan bills. One measure aims to simplify the process for potential political candidates to get on the ballot. The other closes a loophole that allows officials convicted of campaign finance violations to remain in control of that money. 

The hearing struck a far different tone than the Senate elections committee took a day prior when a public hearing over the reappointment of the administrator of the Wisconsin Elections Commission descended into partisan rancor and the unchecked spread of 2020 election conspiracies. 

Since taking the Assembly committee gavel at the beginning of the legislative session, Rep. Scott Krug (R-Nekoosa) has said he’s deliberately trying to lower the temperature on election law debates in Wisconsin while he and the committee work to fine tune the state’s processes with bipartisan support. During the last legislative session, when the Assembly committee was chaired by Rep. Janel Brandtjen (R-Menomonee Falls), the body was the source of some of Wisconsin’s most persistent election denialism. 

On Wednesday and during a previous public hearing, the Assembly committee focused almost entirely on bipartisan bills while members from both sides of the aisle participated collegially. 

“My goal for the rest of this session is to be educational and to be able to help people in Wisconsin understand what we’re doing and how we’re making elections better, safer and secure in Wisconsin and we’re all going to be working pretty hard throughout the fall to do that,” Krug said. 

Rep. Sylvia Ortiz-Velez (D-Milwaukee), noted that the committee is trying to address actual problems facing the state’s election administration. 

“I also want to thank this committee for listening to both of these bills today,” she said. “And to really work together where we can find consensus and really try to fix problems in our state because that’s what we’re here for.”

The first bill discussed at the hearing, AB 330, would change how nominating signatures for candidates are counted. 

Under current law, most elected positions in Wisconsin have a statutory minimum number of signatures a candidate is required to obtain from voters in order to gain access to the ballot. Most positions also include a maximum number of signatures the candidate is allowed to turn in, however many candidates collect more signatures than the maximum. 

For example, a candidate for Assembly or circuit court must file at least 200 signatures but can’t file more than 400 while a candidate for the U.S. Senate or Supreme Court justice must file at least 2,000 signatures but not more than 4,000. 

When a candidate is trying to get onto the ballot, a municipal clerk or the Wisconsin Elections Commission assesses the signatures to determine if the candidate has reached the threshold. Signatures can be disqualified for  a number of reasons, including if the voter doesn’t actually reside in the district where the candidate is running, writes the wrong address and for other technical issues with how the paperwork is filled out. 

The bill’s authors said Wednesday that the maximum allowable number of signatures turned in can often prevent candidates from gaining access to the ballot. If a potential candidate running for Assembly collects 600 signatures and turns in the maximum of 400, yet many of those are invalidated, under current law the extra signatures the candidate collected won’t be counted. The bill would require those supplemental signatures to be counted. 

During her testimony, Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee), a co-author on the Senate version of the bill, said there were several examples of school board candidates in Milwaukee being denied access to the ballot because of this problem. 

“We have the signature requirement to show that you have commitment and that you have connection with your community,” Rep. Shae Sortwell (R-Two Rivers) said. “Somebody who turns in more than 800 signatures, has connection with their community. And the fact that for one reason or another there were too many of that first 800 that got thrown out, and then they weren’t willing to count the additional ones, is just on its face ridiculous.”

The other bill the committee considered on Wednesday, AB 335, would require that a public official convicted of violating the state’s campaign finance laws have their candidate committee dissolved and all remaining funds be returned to the original donors or donated to the state’s common school fund — which is the primary source of money for Wisconsin’s school libraries. 

The bipartisan bill was authored after former Milwaukee Alderwoman Chantia Lewis was convicted of violating campaign finance laws yet maintained control of her campaign funds and continued to act as the treasurer of her campaign committee. 

“Why, since an adjudicated person is no longer allowed to hold public office, is there a need for them to continue to have a campaign account?” Ortiz-Velez asked. “And why are the candidates still allowed to control their campaign funds when they were just found guilty of not being good custodians?”

Krug said the bills pending in the committee are likely to be advanced sometime this fall.



originally published at https%3A%2F%2Fwisconsinexaminer.com%2F2023%2F08%2F30%2Fassembly-elections-committee-considers-bills-on-ballot-signatures-violations-of-campaign-finance-laws%2F by Henry Redman

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