Election grants: Wisconsin GOP proposes constitutional ban

Wisconsin Republicans on Wednesday proposed making it unconstitutional to accept private grant money to help administer elections, the latest front in the ongoing battle over how to run elections in the presidential battleground state.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers would not be able to stop the proposed constitutional amendment, which has to pass two consecutive sessions of the Legislature and be approved in a statewide vote. That could be done in 2023, putting it in effect before the 2024 presidential election.

The amendment addresses a Republican complaint about grant money that came to Wisconsin in 2020 from the Center for Tech and Civic Life, which is funded by Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan. The state's five largest cities received $8.8 million but more than 200 communities in Wisconsin received funding as part of $350 million given out nationally.

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Republicans were angered that the bulk of the money went to Democratic cities that voted for President Joe Biden. He beat Donald Trump by just under 21,000 votes in Wisconsin. His win has withstood multiple reviews, legal challenges and recounts.

Examining how that money was used in Wisconsin is a focus of the ongoing Republican-ordered election investigation being led by former Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman. The Wisconsin Elections Commission in December rejected a challenge to the grant funding. Three courts in the last year also dismissed claims that the grants were illegal.

In addition to prohibiting the use of grant funding to administer elections, the amendment would also ban anyone who is not employed by state or local government from helping to carry out elections. Michael Spitzer-Rubenstein, a consultant with the National Vote at Home Institute, helped Green Bay officials on election night, work that Republicans have called into question.

The amendment was proposed by three Republican lawmakers: Sen. Eric Wimberger, of Green Bay, and Reps. Tyler August, of Lake Geneva, and Tyler Vorpagel, of Plymouth.

"While state statutes never anticipated this situation, these donations still broke the spirit of our election laws," the lawmakers said in a memo seeking co-sponsors. "Voters need to be able to trust that their local election officials are acting in a non-partisan capacity."

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Democrats don't have enough votes to stop passage of the amendment this session. The next Legislature, the makeup of which will be determined in November's election, would also have to approve the measure before it is put to voters.

The proposal is part of a large package of Republican election bills being pushed through the Legislature before the session adjourns in March. The bills, unlike the constitutional amendment on the grants, can be blocked with an Evers veto.

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