Senate elections committee pointedly excludes state elections commission from hearing

The Wisconsin Senate Committee on Shared Revenue, Elections and Consumer Protection held a hearing Tuesday on voting access for people with disabilities as well as a number of bipartisan election bills. 

While the meeting was notably free from the election conspiracy theories that have been prevalent in the committee and the Senate as a whole in recent weeks, the Wisconsin Elections Commission was not invited to attend. The agency wasn’t invited even though the portion of the hearing focused on accessible voting was about a WEC-authored report. 

Earlier this month, the Senate took a legally disputed vote to fire WEC Administrator Meagan Wolfe. A lawsuit over the status of Wolfe’s job is pending after Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul sued on the grounds that  the Senate did not have the authority to fire her. Despite actions of the Democratic members of the election commission to keep Wolfe in her job without needing Senate approval, the Senate acted throughout the summer as if her renomination was before them. A public hearing nominally on Wolfe’s reconfirmation included some of the state’s most prominent election deniers spreading false information about the 2020 election and calling for Wolfe’s arrest. 

The dispute between WEC and the Legislature escalated last week when several lawmakers introduced a resolution to impeach Wolfe. 

Republicans have organized against Wolfe because of election skeptics’ claims that she is responsible for problems they believe occurred during the 2020 election such as how nursing home residents were allowed to vote and the use of absentee ballot drop boxes. Despite Republican claims, Wolfe’s role is limited to what the bipartisan six member commission votes to direct her to do. 

The memo seeking additional lawmakers to sponsor the impeachment resolution against her is circulating this week with a Wednesday deadline. 

Another group of Republicans have proposed legislation that would require  Wisconsin to withdraw from the Electronic Registration Information Center,  ERIC, a multi-state coalition that allows the tracking of voters who move among states. Republicans have turned against the coalition, claiming it serves as a voter registration operation for Democrats, yet election officials say it’s the most effective way to make sure people aren’t voting twice in multiple states or casting a ballot for someone who is dead. 

“I’m pleased to see that knowledgeable and skilled advocates from Disability Rights Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Council of the Blind and Visually Impaired were invited by the state Senate to discuss the WEC’s report regarding voters with disabilities,” Wolfe said in a statement to the Examiner. “The result of our report demonstrates we are making strong progress in removing or mitigating barriers faced by some of our voting population. However, it’s unfortunate that the WEC — which authored and submitted the report called ‘Barriers Faced by Elderly Voters and Voters with Disabilities’ as required by state law — was not invited to the hearing to discuss the agency’s own work. Wisconsin voters lose out when the WEC’s experts aren’t at the table.”

Some bipartisan progress

Outside the loud partisan fighting over inaccurate claims Republicans have been continually making about election administration in Wisconsin, lawmakers have also been able to create a pathway in which bipartisan election legislation moves forward. 

The Assembly elections committee has spent the legislative session largely focused on administrative fixes to election law with which both parties agree. On Monday, lawmakers introduced a proposal to allow municipalities to start processing absentee ballots the Monday before an election. The idea received support from lawmakers and election officials from both parties at an Assembly hearing last week. The proposal would allow the state’s largest municipalities to finish counting votes sooner on election night — aiming to prevent late hour “ballot dumps” that have sparked conspiracy theories largely about the large number of absentee votes from Milwaukee that get counted and added to totals hours after polls close, frequently flipping the results of statewide elections. 

At the Senate hearing Tuesday, two advocates for voters with disabilities testified on the state of accessibility in the state’s elections, sharing examples of barriers some voters face, including small town polling places without accessible entrances or a lack of parking spots. In one example, the only accessible voting machine for voters with impaired vision was placed in a bathroom. 

The two advocates, Barbara Beckert of Disability Rights Wisconsin and Denise Jess of Wisconsin Council of the Blind and Visually Impaired, made a number of recommendations to the lawmakers on the committee for improvements that could be made to the state’s voting laws to protect people’s right to vote. 

The recommendations included adding two full-time positions at WEC to focus on accessibility issues, additional funding for municipalities to pay for small accessibility features such as temporary disabled parking signs and additional training for election officials and poll workers. 

Jess, who is blind, emphasized that education is especially important because clerks and poll workers are constantly turning over and every time she goes to vote in Madison, she finds new areas in which access can be improved. 

“That rigorous education really allows folks who really have the intention to do good work to be able to have the knowledge to do it,” she said. “Our clerks work so hard and they are carrying so much information, so the more that the education system is there to support them, and their poll workers, the better. I vote here in the city of Madison, where I think that our clerk is very well educated on these issues, and there isn’t an election that goes by where I’m not educating poll workers when I walk into my setting and I’ve had poll workers who have been there for years. So it’s an evolutionary, always going on process.” 

After the testimony from Beckert and Jess, the committee held a public hearing on several election related bills. 

One bill, SB 291, would make election clerks’ personal information confidential and increase the criminal penalty for someone who assaults an election worker. 

Another bill, SB 433, which would make a change requested by a number of clerks, would alter the clerks’ timelines for sending absentee ballots during spring elections. Current law requires anyone with an absentee request on file be sent a ballot for the presidential primary in April 47 days before that election. The problem is that 47 days before the April election is five days before the February primary election. 

This overlap results in clerks being forced to send out multiple different types of ballots at the same time. The bill would untangle the overlap. 

Another proposal with bipartisan support, SB 39, would allow voters to opt in to a program that sends them a confirmation text when their absentee ballot request is received by their municipal clerk and another when their completed ballot is received. 

Finally, the committee heard testimony on SB 408, which would make changes to the Legislature’s “50-piece rule” which prevents lawmakers from mailing more than 50 pieces of mail or emails to constituents once they’re eligible to begin circulating nomination papers for their re-election. 

The bill would increase the limit for senators from 50 to 150 pieces to reflect their larger district sizes while making a change to account for lawmakers sending information to their constituents during emergencies. The 50-piece rule prevented legislators from communicating with the people in their districts during the COVID-19 pandemic because it overlapped with their re-election campaigns. The bill’s author, Rep. David Steffen (R-Green Bay), said the rule once prevented a lawmaker from communicating with his constituents after a tornado hit his district. 

The bill would suspend the rule during a declared state of emergency but only for areas under the declaration and only for communications about the emergency.



originally published at https%3A%2F%2Fwisconsinexaminer.com%2F2023%2F09%2F26%2Fsenate-elections-committee-pointedly-excludes-state-elections-commission-from-hearing%2F by Henry Redman

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