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Public weighs in on rules for Wisconsin election observers

The proposal spells out what election observers can — and can't do — at Wisconsin polling places

Plexiglass lines a long row of tables as two election officials count ballots
Observers, left, watch as workers recount ballots Monday, Nov. 23, 2020, at the Wisconsin Center in Milwaukee. Angela Major/WPR

Members of the public weighed in Wednesday on a plan that would spell out what election observers can — and can’t do — at Wisconsin polling places.

The proposed rule by the Wisconsin Elections Commission comes months before the state’s closely watched presidential election, when it could be one of six states that tip the balance in this year’s presidential race.

Unlike poll workers or election officials who help run elections, election observers are people who’ve signed up to watch the voting process. They have rights under state law, but the same law gives a polling place’s chief inspector or a municipal clerk some discretion to restrict where people are allowed to observe.

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The WEC rule would let observers stand as close as 3 feet away from voters, but no closer. It would also let them stand as far as 8 feet away, but no farther.

Within that 3- to 8-foot range, backers of the rule say it would strike a balance that gives observers the right to look at things like rejected absentee ballot certificates while giving clerks the power to manage their polling places.

“Most importantly, it prioritizes voters’ rights to vote without intimidation or interference,” said Eileen Newcomer with the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin. “Adopting this rule is a crucial step in insuring a smooth and intimidation-free voting experience for Wisconsinites.”

But opponents of the rule, including people who’ve worked as election observers, argued that the 8-foot range was too far, making it hard to see what’s happening in a meaningful way.

“I understand that it’s kind of hard sometimes to negotiate, or to figure out how to … put observers’ chairs and things,” testified Kathryn Bartelli. “But I do feel that that’s too far — the 8 foot.”

The WEC proposal also spells out the power of election officials to have an observer removed from a polling place if they disrupt voting.

The final rule would need approval by the six-member Wisconsin Elections Commission, which is split 3-3 between Republican and Democratic appointees.

Republican lawmakers passed a bill last session that would have required election observers to be stationed no farther than 3 feet away, making that the new maximum distance instead of the minimum. Democratic Gov. Tony Evers vetoed the plan, saying it would have increased the potential for observers to interfere with, or intimidate voters casting their ballots.