Parties split as election-related constitutional amendments pass Senate

Republicans in the Wisconsin Senate advanced four proposed constitutional amendments Tuesday, including one to ban private grants to local communities for administering elections and another to ban non-citizens from voting in any elections in the state.

A third would write the state’s photo ID requirement for voters into the Wisconsin Constitution. The fourth measure would amend the constitution to prevent houses of worship from being closed during a state of emergency such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

All four amendments passed 21-10, with no support from Senate Democrats, and the three related to voting and elections are on the Assembly calendar for Thursday. As joint resolutions, they do not require a signature from the governor. Instead, if they pass two concurrent sessions of the Legislature they will go to voters in the form of ballot questions.

The Senate also passed along party lines a bill requiring state elections officials to verify the U.S. citizenship of people registering to vote.

Exempting places of worship from emergency closures

SJR-54 would not allow state or local governments to “order the closure of or forbid gatherings in places of worship in response to a state of emergency at the national, state, or local level, including an emergency related to public health.”

A state health order that closed most public buildings for seven weeks in 2020 until a divided Supreme Court lifted it immediately on May 13 did not close churches or other houses of worship, which were listed among “essential” locations allowed to remain open, while indoor gatherings were required to be limited to 10 people at a time.

At a Senate public hearing in July on the proposed amendment, however, Rep. Ty Bodden (R-Hilbert), lead author of the Assembly companion measure (AJR-60), claimed that early in the COVID-19 pandemic “churches were forced to shut down in the name of public safety.”

Also at the July hearing, Peter Bakken of the Wisconsin Council of Churches spoke more skeptically of the proposal. While the council neither endorsed nor opposed the proposed amendment, he said, it poses the risk of unintended consequences. Bakken warned that it could spawn new legal disputes about the definition of a house of worship while discouraging careful public deliberation over how to keep people safe in a future health emergency. 

On the Senate floor Tuesday, though, the only comment on the proposal came when Sen. Melissa Agard (D-Madison), the Senate minority leader, alluded to it in a speech criticizing the amendments as a group.

“It’s almost 2024. And it’s clear that the GOP in Wisconsin’s Capitol is stuck in 2020,” Agard said. She ticked off priorities that Democrats have favored and Republicans have opposed, then added, “What we see today is Republicans legislating from 2020, playing out on a Big Lie, and disregarding public health professionals.”

The resolution is in its first legislative session. To be enacted as a constitutional amendment, it will have to be reintroduced and passed in the 2025-26 session, then win the approval of Wisconsin voters in a referendum.

Amendments on voting and elections

There was no discussion of SJR-071, just a vote. That proposed amendment specifies, “Only a United States citizen” and resident of the state or a district in the state “may vote in an election for national, state, or local office or at a statewide or local referendum.”

Authors of the proposal said it should be adopted because some communities in other states have passed laws allowing residents who are not U.S. citizens to vote in their local elections.

The amendment passed in the 2021-22 legislative session, and it is on the calendar for Thursday’s Assembly floor session. If it passes the Assembly, as expected, it would likely go to a referendum in 2024 — the last step in the state’s constitutional amendment process, where voters can ratify it or reject it.

There was also no discussion of SJR-73, inserting the state’s voter ID requirement into the constitution. That resolution is also on the Assembly calendar for Thursday, and if it passes there, will need to pass both houses again in the 2025-26 session before going to voters.

Instead, senators turned all their debating attention to SJR-78 — blocking state agencies or local governments from taking any help, in the form of funds, equipment or staffing, if they are provided “by an individual or nongovernmental entity.”

Authors of the proposal first introduced and passed it in the 2021-22 legislative session after supporters of former President Donald Trump spread conspiracy theories about private grants to local communities to help defray the costs of administering the 2020 presidential election during the pandemic. The nonpartisan organization making the grants was heavily funded by donations from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

The grants were distributed to communities throughout the state, although the largest share went to Wisconsin’s five largest cities. Trump lost Wisconsin by about 21,000 votes to President Joe Biden, and his backers claimed the grants helped change the outcome.

“Promoting turnout in targeted regions can change the results across the state,” the resolution’s lead Senate author, Sen. Eric Wimberger (R-Green Bay), said on the Senate floor Tuesday. “Government entities cannot be participants if we want to prevent corruption, live in a society of laws and promote confidence in the election process.”

Election administration resources

Sen. Mark Spreitzer (D-Beloit), said that if lawmakers are going to outlaw private grants for local election administration, they should vote for the state to provide adequate funding. He noted that the Republican majority on the Joint Finance Committee stripped $400 million from the 2023-25 state budget that Gov. Tony Evers had included for local election administration grants.

“You can either provide public funding for elections, or you can let clerks go out and find the resources that they need to cover the gap,” Spreitzer said. “But you can’t choose neither.”

Wimberger retorted that over the course of election cycles since 2020, “No one’s filed a lawsuit saying they were short of funds.”



Sen. Brad Pfaff (D-Onalaska), said in his western Wisconsin district, local town boards have struggled to keep clerks whose jobs include running elections. “They keep hearing that what they did in 2020 was wrong,” Pfaff said. “And all they wanted to do was to make sure that all of us had the opportunity to vote.”

Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) mocked Wimberger for trying to curb “the abhorrent act of making sure elections are funded so that more people are voting in a democracy.” Voters won’t go along, he predicted.

“The frustration from voters is not that there’s private funds coming in to fund elections,” Larson said. “The frustration is that the state is not funding elections — that we, unfortunately, under the majority control here, have made a hobby of making it harder and harder and harder for our constituents, our neighbors, to actually exercise the right to vote.”

Wimberger described the 2020 grants as “buying off cities.” Sen. Tim Carpenter (D-Milwaukee) objected to the characterization.

The election grants were public, Carpenter said. Namechecking major Republican backers such as Diane Hendricks and Richard and Elizabeth Uihlein, he added, “When you say the cities are bought out, I think you should also keep in mind [that] with dark money, that politicians are being bought up also. And that’s not as transparent. And it’s more damaging.”

Wimberger predicted voters will ratify the measure when their turn comes, which he said he hoped would be in the April 2024 election. Larson predicted it will fail. “It turns out, in our democratic republic, people like voting,” Larson said.

Mining the DOT for citizenship information

In a subsequent vote the Senate passed SB-98.

The state Department of Transportation (DOT) provides the state elections commission information to match voter registration list data with data that DOT has on file the department has on file. The bill adds a requirement for DOT to turn over information to the elections commission verifying that people on the voter registration list are U.S. citizens. It passed on another 21-10 party-line vote without debate.

Toward the end of Tuesday’s floor session, Wisconsin election law came up once more, when Sen. Jeff Smith (D-Brunswick) made a motion to pull a Democratic bill from the committee where it has been assigned and bring it to the floor for a vote.

The measure, SB-548, would provide for automatic voter registration for eligible driver’s licenses applicants; make it a criminal offense to deceive voters about the date or time of an election or their eligibility, among other things; and make various acts of voter suppression a crime.

“If you spent half the energy you spend disenfranchising voters, instead of applying that energy to listening to them, you wouldn’t need to resort to tactics that make people lose faith in this chamber and the state,” Smith told the Senate’s Republican majority.

Passing the bill could “end today on a positive vote,” he added. “This should be bipartisan. This should be common sense.”

Sen. Dan Knodl (R-Germantown), who chairs the Senate’s elections committee, chided Smith for bypassing standard procedure in bringing the bill to the floor, then chided Democrats for voting against SB-98.

That bill “gave the resources that our clerks have been asking for on photo ID. So we are addressing some of the issues that are in this proposed bill,” Knodl said, grimacing. “And I invite the authors to come to speak to me as the committee chair to discuss the proper way to bring a bill forward.”

Smith’s motion failed on a vote of 10-21.

originally published at https%3A%2F%2Fwisconsinexaminer.com%2F2023%2F11%2F08%2Fparties-split-as-election-related-constitutional-amendments-pass-senate%2F by Erik Gunn

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