Wisconsin April ballot lawsuit seeks to block bail, welfare measures

A constitutional amendment regarding cash bail in Wisconsin is set to appear on the April ballot. Another referendum, which is non-binding, will ask voters about welfare work search requirements.

A new lawsuit aims to stop both, and it all comes down to a technicality in state law.

Wisconsin law states referenda are to be filed 70 days before the election with "the official or agency responsible for preparing the ballots." That makes Jan. 25 the deadline for this April's ballot.

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Both chambers of the Wisconsin Legislature sent the paperwork to the Wisconsin Elections Commission on Jan. 19 – several days before the deadline.

In a statement, the Wisconsin Elections Commission said: "Overall, our understanding is that the Wisconsin Elections Commission is the only filing officer for state-level referenda questions, and the statutory ballot ordering requirements for state-level referenda fall to the Commission alone."

The Wisconsin Elections Commission sent the paperwork to county clerks on Jan. 26, but progressive law firm Law Forward said it was a day too late.

"WEC’s guidance is simply incorrect and contrary to Wisconsin law. If the legislature wants to do something so important as amend the constitution, it’s up to the legislature to follow their own rules," said Law Forward's Dan Lenz.

"This is a last-ditch, legally baseless attempt by a liberal, progressive group to block common-sense bail reform," State Rep. Cindi Duchow (R-Delafield) said. She is the amendment's lead sponsor. 

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The amendment would allow judges to take into account things like the defendant's crime and any prior convictions when setting bail. Right now, the state Constitution states courts can use bail only to ensure a defendant shows up for court.

Now, before voters decide, the courts will be asked to decide whether it will even make the ballot.

Wisconsin Capitol, Madison

The lawsuit was filed against the elections commission in Dane County Circuit Court by EXPO Wisconsin and WISDOM. EXPO stands for or Ex-Incarcerated People Organizing. It is an affiliate of WISDOM, a statewide faith-based organization. Both groups work with people who spent time behind bars and fight against mass incarceration. Both groups were opposed to the ballot measures.

The bail amendment, which has been discussed for years, won approval in the last legislative session and passed this year with bipartisan support. A constitutional amendment has to pass two consecutive legislative sessions before it can be put on the ballot for final approval.

The advisory referendum would ask voters if they believe that able-bodied, childless welfare recipients should be required to look for work.

The election is April 4.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.