State Lawmakers Unveil Slew Of Proposed Election Law Changes In Wisconsin

Bipartisan Bill Would Institute Ranked-Choice Voting For Congressional Races

A blue yard sign says "VOTE" near a line of early voters
Voters at UW-Madison wait in line to vote early Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020. Angela Major/WPR

State lawmakers have unveiled a slew of bills that would change election laws in Wisconsin, from instituting ranked-choice voting for congressional races to setting more limits on absentee voting.

The ranked-choice voting bill has bipartisan support. Under the plan, primary elections for Wisconsin’s congressional delegation would no longer be partisan. Instead, all candidates would appear on the same primary ballot and the top five vote-getters would advance to the general election.

In the general election, voters would rank their choices from first to fifth. If one candidate wins a majority of first place rankings after the first counting of ballots, they win the election. If no candidate wins a majority after the first count, the candidate with the lowest number of total votes is eliminated from the count and their supporters’ votes are shifted to those voters’ second choice candidate. That process continues until one candidate has more than 50 percent of votes cast.

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Supporters argue the change would remove some amount of extreme partisanship from the political system, giving candidates more incentive to appeal to voters in the middle of the political spectrum.

Sen. Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield, one of the bill’s sponsors, said the current partisan primary system encourages polarization and gridlock.

“It’s rewarding behavior that makes you a superhero in your primary, in your party, and it discourages behavior that is of the tradition of compromise, of the tradition of working with other folks and exploring new ideas,” Kooyenga said.

He argued ranked choice voting would “change the incentives” for candidates.

“The incentives are to not just cater to your base, but to have a larger view of representation,” he said.

Kooyenga and Sen. Jeff Smith, D-Eau Claire, and state Reps.Tony Kurtz, R-Wonewoc, and Daniel Riemer, D-Milwaukee, are co-sponsoring the bill.

“Wisconsinites are increasingly frustrated with Washington, D.C. and Congress’ inability to get anything done,” the sponsors said in a memo seeking additional co-sponsors. “This dysfunction is incentivized by election rules that rewards absolute fidelity to ideology because the party primary is the most important election.”

The plan is being pushed by Democracy Found, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit organization founded and backed by a bipartisan group of business leaders including Katherine Gehl, former chief executive officer of Gehl Foods, based in Germantown, and Austin Ramirez, chief executive officer of Husco International, based in Waukesha.

Ranked-choice voting has been instituted for at least some elections in several states, including California, Colorado, Minnesota, Maryland, Maine and New York.

Republican Bills Would Set New Limits On Absentee Voting

On Wednesday, two GOP state senators also rolled out a package of 10 bills aimed at changing how Wisconsin elections are run. Several of the plans are direct responses to criticism of the 2020 presidential election.

The bills cover a broad set of issues, from who qualifies as an “indefinitely confined” voter to how election officials can collect absentee ballots. They are sponsored by Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, and Sen. Duey Stroebel, R-Saukville.

One bill in the package would set new requirements for indefinitely confined voters — people who cast their ballots by mail due to medical conditions. Current law states indefinitely confined voters don’t have to provide a copy of their photo ID with their absentee ballot application but can instead have a witness sign their application as proof of identity. That measure caused some consternation among Republicans in 2020.

Under the new proposal, the ID exemption for indefinitely confined voters would be eliminated. Additionally, a voter’s statement that they are indefinitely confined for voting purposes would have to be made under oath. If the voter is under 65 years old, they would also have to provide supporting documentation from a health care provider. The bill also says a pandemic or “outbreak of a communicable disease” does not qualify voters as indefinitely confined and removes anyone who achieved indefinitely confined status between March 12 and Nov. 6, 2020 from the list of qualifying individuals.

Republicans raised strong concerns in 2020 with guidance from the Dane and Milwaukee county clerks regarding indefinitely confined voting during the pandemic. The clerks rescinded and corrected their guidance after pushback. The bill would set a felony penalty of falsely declaring oneself indefinitely confined, with a fine of up to $10,000 or imprisonment for up to three and a half years.

Another bill would allow local election officials to set up a site outside their offices to collect absentee ballots, with some limits. Republicans raised concerns about ballot collection events held in Madison parks ahead of the 2020 presidential election, saying they weren’t secure enough. Under the bill, the site must be located near the clerk’s office and be staffed only by the clerk of clerk’s office employees. The site would only be allowed to operate in the 14-day early voting window ahead of an election.

A third bill in the package would set requirements for absentee ballot drop boxes, which were widely used across the state during the pandemic. Under the bill, the boxes would have to meet certain security standards and must be attached to the building where the municipal clerk’s office is located. Many places had numerous drop boxes located in different parts of their community in 2020, with an eye on increasing convenience for voters.

Another measure would bar election officials from adding missing information, like an address, to a voter’s absentee ballot envelope, even if they have access to official government documents to provide the missing information. This was also a subject of contention in GOP-backed lawsuits over election results.

In a prepared statement, Darling said the bills are aimed at restoring trust in the electoral system.

“Our right to vote is a shared and sacred right. However, far too many people have sincere concerns about our electoral system,” Darling said in a prepared statement. “These bills will help restore trust and make sure our elections are handled fairly for everyone.”

Stroebel argued public confidence in election is “at a crisis point.”

“We must ensure uniformity of process and transparency of conduct so all voters, regardless of political belief, trust the final outcome,” he said.

Other measures in the package would:

  • Bar election officials from counting information provided on absentee ballot envelopes as absentee ballot applications, a practice officials have used for early voting for years.
  • Require nursing home administrators to notify family members when special voting deputies are scheduled to visit facilities to assist with voting.
  • Set a felony penalty for nursing home employees who influence a resident’s voting behavior.
  • Require the Wisconsin Elections Commission to post public information about its meetings.
  • Bar a person from returning someone else’s absentee ballot to a clerk’s office unless they are a member of the voter’s immediate family or the voter’s legal guardian.
  • Put limits on how election officials can use grant money to support election administration.
  • Bar people who work for political or advocacy groups from serving as poll workers.

Gov. Tony Evers could veto any of the GOP-backed bills, if they are approved by both chambers of the Legislature.