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Lawmakers reconsider allowing early canvassing of ‘central count’ absentee ballots

The move would let election workers in places like Milwaukee process ballots faster on Election Day

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Workers count absentee ballots at the Wisconsin Center f
Workers count absentee ballots at the Wisconsin Center for the midterm election Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022, in Milwaukee. AP Photo/Morry Gash

After four years of failed attempts, Wisconsin lawmakers are reintroducing legislation to give election workers a one-day head start on processing absentee ballots in places like Milwaukee.

The idea of letting clerks and other election workers start canvassing absentee ballots before Election Day used to have bipartisan support. Then came the 2020 presidential election and years of false claims from Former President Donald Trump that the election was stolen from him by way of early morning ballot dumps in Democratic cities.

Under current law, absentee ballots cannot be processed until election day. For large cities like Milwaukee and Madison, that takes time, and has led to swings in unofficial statewide results reported by the Associated Press on election night.

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On Thursday, Rep. Ron Tusler, R-Harrison, introduced a bill to give election workers a jump on canvassing those ballots. It contains a host of other election-related changes that Democrats say make it hard for them to support.

Tusler’s office said he wasn’t available for an interview, but he said in an email to colleagues last month that giving clerks a head start would make reporting Wisconsin election results more efficient.

“In 2018, voters in Wisconsin went to bed with one gubernatorial candidate in the lead,” read the email to lawmakers seeking co-sponsors of the plan. “After the processing of all ballots was completed, the lead flipped to another candidate. In 2020, the same event took place. In 2022, some states much larger than Wisconsin reported results more rapidly.”

Joining Tusler in sending the email were Rep. Dave Maxey, R-New Berlin and Sen. Rachael Cabral-Guevara, R-Appleton.

While the plan currently has only Republican support, state Sen. Mark Spreitzer, D-Beloit, told Wisconsin Public Radio he’s discussed the bill with fellow Democrats, Gov. Tony Evers and GOP lawmakers.

“I’ve had very positive conversations with some of my Republican colleagues about moving this bill forward in a form that we could all support this session,” Spreitzer said.

That means pulling language regarding things like absentee ballot timelines and whistleblower protections for clerks from the legislation, Spreitzer said, issues that are working through the Legislature as stand-alone bills.

In an interview with WisconsinEye, Evers said legislation authorizing clerks to process absentee ballots the Monday before Election Day “would help a lot.”

“And so, if (lawmakers) bring that to me in a reasonable format, I certainly will sign that,” Evers said.

Evers’ did not immediately respond to an email asking whether the current bill introduced by Tusler and other Republicans would pass muster.

Spreitzer noted that the idea of processing absentee ballots on the Monday before Election Day started out as bipartisan in the Wisconsin Legislature. In 2019, he said, he worked on an early count bill with Sen. Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, who is now the Senate majority leader. Spreitzer said lawmakers weren’t able to get it to the finish line before the end of the legislative season.

The issue became more partisan after the 2020 election, Spreitzer said. Last year, dueling Republican early count bills were introduced in the state Assembly and state Senate and neither received Democratic support.

Some Republicans actively fought the proposal. They included former Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, who insinuated without evidence that the bill would let Democrats “manipulate” elections. Former GOP gubernatorial candidate Kevin Nicholson celebrated the end of the early-count bill, claiming the party’s grassroots stopped Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and “his Madison Machine.”

Neither GOP bill made it to the governor’s desk.

Spreitzer said he believes things are changing for the better this year.

“We’ve actually had hearings and committee votes on good bipartisan election bills that would make things better,” Spreitzer said. “I’ve done bills with (Republican) Senator Duey Stroebel and with (Republican) Senator Dan Knodl on elections this session. That would never have happened last session.”

The early-count absentee ballot bill along with 10 other tweaks to Wisconsin’s elections laws will be considered during a public hearing of the state Assembly Committee on Campaigns and Elections Tuesday.

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