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Senate elections committee holds hearing on voting in nursing homes, determining voter competency

The Wisconsin Senate Committee on Shared Revenue, Elections and Consumer Protection held a public hearing Tuesday on several Republican-authored bills changing the state’s laws regarding how nursing home residents cast absentee ballots and the procedures for taking away  someone’s vote after that person is  declared incompetent. 

The hearing did not garner the attention of the state’s election conspiracy theorists — a rarity in a committee that has regularly played host to 2020 election deniers. However, the issues raised in the bills have been regular complaints from Republicans since the 2020 election. 

In 2020, the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC) voted several times to forgo sending officials known as special voting deputies into nursing homes to help people cast their absentee ballots. State law requires special voting deputies, who are often accompanied by election observers from both major political parties, to attempt to enter nursing homes and care facilities to aid residents in filling out absentee ballots. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the elections commission decided it didn’t make sense to send the deputies to the nursing homes only to be denied entry because of quarantine restrictions. 

Later, Republicans alleged that the WEC broke the law by not sending the deputies. The Racine County Sheriff threatened to charge five of the body’s six members with felonies because of their decision. 

Republicans have also regularly alleged that because the special voting deputy provisions were adjusted due to the pandemic, nursing home staff were forcing residents to cast ballots, including residents who didn’t understand the process or had been declared incompetent. 

Former Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman and right-wing attorney Erick Kaardal, as part of their widely derided review of the 2020 election, interviewed seemingly confused elderly nursing home residents with their families and alleged that their interview subjects shouldn’t have been allowed to vote. 

Only a judge can make the determination that someone isn’t competent enough to vote, regardless of what their children believe. Kaardal and Gableman’s interviews also made sweeping generalizations about people’s cognitive abilities after asking a few questions that aren’t part of  Wisconsin’s judicial process for finding incompetency. 

Some elections officials have also raised questions about the procedures that take place once a person is declared incompetent by a judge. That declaration of incompetency and the person’s disenfranchisement must be transmitted from a circuit court to the county clerk of courts, who must then send that information to the WEC, which then sends the information about the voter to the local clerk where that person lives, who marks the voter ineligible in the voter database. 

Through all of these steps between various government agencies, a person can be missed. A review by Dane County found that 95 people cast more than 300 ballots since 2008 despite being previously declared incompetent to vote. 

At the hearing Tuesday, one of the bills discussed was SB 593, authored by Sen. Romaine Quinn (R-Cameron). The bill addresses both special voting deputies and the process for declarations of incompetency. 

One section of the bill, if passed, would require the care facility or nursing home to notify each person on a resident’s contact list of the dates and times special voting deputies will be present so they can attend if desired. Current law requires the dates and times to be posted on the facility’s website and on signs at the facility. 

“I want to make clear that the purpose of this bill is to protect the voting rights of those people in the nursing home, as well as to protect election integrity,” Rep. Joel Kitchens (R-Sturgeon Bay), an author of the Assembly version of the bill, said. “We want to prevent seniors from being exploited. You know, we recognize that senior citizens are a vulnerable group and we have special rules set aside for them to not be financially exploited. I think we also need to be very careful that they’re not exploited in this way.”

Advocates for people with disabilities raised a number of objections to this provision, noting that inviting every person on a contact list could threaten the privacy of a resident’s vote and create capacity problems for the facility itself. 

“It’s really beyond the ability of the law to predict or assume that all contacts listed in a file have an equal or benevolent interest in the resident’s rights,” Tami Jackson, policy analyst for the Wisconsin Board for People with Developmental Disabilities, said. “I would like to believe that if somebody said, ‘I would like to vote and use an absentee process and I live in a congregate restrictive setting,’ I’d like to believe that there would be a group of people that would rally around that person and support their right to vote and make sure it happens. I don’t think that’s the reality for a lot of folks.”

The bill also includes a section on the process after someone has been declared incompetent. The bill requires the circuit court to notify the WEC of the declaration of incompetency by email. WEC then would have two business days to change the status of the voter to inactive in the statewide voter registration database and notify both the voter and the voter’s municipal clerk. None of the advocates for people with disabilities who testified at the hearing had major concerns about these changes. 

The bill has already passed the Assembly, so passage in the Senate would send it to Gov. Tony Evers to sign or veto.

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originally published at https%3A%2F%2Fwisconsinexaminer.com%2F2023%2F12%2F20%2Fsenate-elections-committee-holds-hearing-on-voting-in-nursing-homes-determining-voter-competency%2F by Henry Redman

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