Wisconsin Senate passes Republican voting changes

The Republican-controlled Wisconsin Senate on Tuesday passed a package of fast-tracked voting changes introduced after former President Donald Trump's defeat in 2020, measures that minority Democrats don't have the votes to stop but that Gov. Tony Evers is expected to veto.

Republicans also don't have enough votes to override an Evers veto, making the votes this week largely about providing campaign fodder heading into November and setting the stage for what the Legislature in battleground Wisconsin may take up again next year.

Evers, a Democrat, is running for reelection and Republican candidates seeking to take him on have said the 2020 election wasn't conducted fairly, questioned President Joe Biden's win and called for overhauling how future elections are run in the state.

The proposals are part of a nationwide Republican effort to reshape elections following Biden’s victory over Trump, who has falsely claimed the election was stolen. The measures come in the waning days of Wisconsin's legislative session and could be sent to Evers by the Assembly on Thursday.

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"You’re doing all of these things to tear down democracy," said Democratic Sen. Tim Carpenter, of Milwaukee, during debate Tuesday. "All of these bills are in search of a nonexistent problem."

Democrats accused Republicans of trying to make it more difficult for voters to cast their ballots, particularly those more likely to vote Democratic.

Republicans argue the bills are a response to problems identified in reports on the 2020 election by the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau and by the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty. Republican Sen. Robert Cowles said it was too bad that efforts to improve election administration going forward appeared headed for vetoes.

"We’re not talking about 2020," he said. "That’s over and Biden won."

Evers reiterated in a tweet on Monday that he has a dim view of Republican attempts to change state election law.

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"I will stop anything that makes it harder for eligible voters to vote," Evers tweeted. "Our democracy is on the line and I will protect it."

Evers wouldn't have a say in one of the measures the Senate passed on Tuesday. The proposed constitutional amendment that would bar donations from outside groups to help run elections is not subject to a gubernatorial veto. It must pass the full Legislature this session and next and then would be put before voters, either in 2023 or 2024.

Gov. Tony Evers

Gov. Tony Evers

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.

Republicans were angered that the bulk of the money went to Democratic cities that voted for Biden. He beat 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.

Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said Tuesday that he still hoped Gableman would conclude his work by the end of February, but he blamed liberals for obstructing his work by filing lawsuits challenging subpoenas he's issued to mayors, local elections officials and others.

One Republican measure the Senate approved Tuesday would give the Legislature control over guidance delivered to local election clerks by the bipartisan Wisconsin Elections Commission. Another would give a GOP-controlled legislative committee the final say over how the elections commission spends any federal money allocated to the agency.

Another would prohibit anyone other than the voter, an immediate family member or a legal guardian from returning an absentee ballot. Another would also prohibit election clerks from filling in any missing information on a voter’s absentee ballot envelope.

One bill approved would allow for the processing of absentee ballots the day before election day, but the results could not be posted until after polls close. Election clerks have pushed for that change for years, but the measure appears poised to die in the Assembly after Republican Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke said it was unlikely to be voted on there.

Another measure passed overhauls the state law pertaining to voters who are indefinitely confined due to age, illness or disability. Disability rights groups got behind the measure after Republicans agreed to changes that addressed their concerns about how such voters would register to cast ballots absentee, but Democrats objected saying current law was better.

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