Wisconsin Assembly To Vote On Absentee Voting Restrictions

The state Assembly will take up several election bills when it meets Tuesday, including two that could change the process of requesting and returning absentee ballots.

Wisconsin voters are currently required to request an absentee ballot in writing, but there are no standard guidelines on what the request should look like.

On Tuesday, the Assembly will vote on a bill that would task the Wisconsin Elections Commission with issuing application guidelines and require all absentee voters to include a copy of their ID with every written ballot request.

It would also require that applications be separate documents from absentee ballot envelopes, which are currently used as de facto written ballot requests, and prevent local clerks or the WEC from sending absentee ballots to anyone who hasn’t requested one.

It’s part of a package introduced by Republican senators in response to the 2020 presidential election, which has been criticized by members of the GOP. It passed the Senate earlier this month, as did a bill that would limit the way absentee ballots can be returned.

The Senate approved a plan that could put an end to drives like “Democracy in the Park,” a series organized by Madison’s city clerk in 2020, which allowed voters to return their ballots at outdoor events. On Tuesday, the Assembly will tackle the bill, which would require absentee ballots to be collected by the clerk or their staff at one site nearby their office within 14 days of the election. 

The Assembly will vote on another measure that would require nursing homes to notify the family of residents in advance of visits from voting assistants and make it a felony for nursing home staff to attempt to influence the way residents vote. The Republican-led Senate passed the legislation, though it was opposed by Democrats.

The Assembly could also vote to impose strict penalties — up to $10,000 and three years in prison — for elections officials who violate certain rules. They include intentionally failing to report election fraud, causing a valid vote to be rejected or causing an invalid vote to be counted.

Wisconsin isn’t the only state that’s seen a Republican-led push for stricter voting laws this year. New election laws in Georgia led Major League Baseball to move its All-Star Game from Atlanta. Arizona, Florida and other states have also passed laws that could deter voters from casting ballots in future elections.

Lawmakers will also consider a GOP bill that would require election observers to wear a badge displaying their name and organization, if applicable, and impose penalties for observers who interfere with voters or refuse to leave when asked. 

Finally, the Assembly will take up a bill that passed the Senate by voice vote, requiring elections clerks to retain any recordings of election night canvassing for at least 22 months.

Gov. Tony Evers has the power to veto these bills if they successfully move through the Legislature. Evers has indicated he will veto any plans that make it harder to vote.

Assembly Will Consider Budget Items, Including Loan To Purchase Verso Paper Mill

In addition Tuesday, the Assembly will work through a hefty agenda that includes a handful of bills that would earmark federal funding for specific state projects.

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Those include a bill that would spend $50 million in federal funds to set up a loan to help Consolidated Cooperative purchase the Verso paper mill in Wisconsin Rapids. 

The mill closed before it suffered damage from a fire earlier this year. Introduced by Rep. Scott Krug, R-Nekoosa, the bill would use COVID-19 relief money to help the co-op finance the purchase of the defunct facility under terms set forth by the WEDC.

Evers had previously proposed funding the loan by accepting $1.6 billion in federal funding for an expansion of BadgerCare, an idea GOP lawmakers rejected.

The Assembly will take up other legislation on local spending, including a proposal that would allocate $5 million in funds from the federal American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 to help Green Bay move the large coal piles that have long sat along the Fox River near the city’s downtown — a bill that’s likely to receive bipartisan support.

Another proposal would direct money from the American Rescue Plan Act as grants to Memorial Hospital of Lafayette County and the city of Reedsburg’s community center. Under a different bill, the State Historical Society could also receive federal funds to keep historical sites open this summer.

Assembly Could Vote To Reduce Funding For Municipalities That Cut Police Spending

More than a year after the murder of George Floyd, the Assembly will take up a bill that appears to be a direct response to calls from activists to defund law enforcement.

Under the proposal, any municipality that reduces its annual budget for growing or maintaining its police force will have its municipal aid payment decreased by the same amount.

The bill passed the Republican-led Senate on party lines earlier this month. Senate Democrats argued that state legislators shouldn’t involve themselves in local budgets.

Lawmakers Could Vote On A Slew Of Other Bills

On Tuesday, the Assembly will also discuss other legislation, including a plan that would lower the age to receive a Wisconsin driver’s permit by six months to 15. The plan passed committee on a bipartisan vote.

Another bill would require schools, government agencies and health care providers to enclose any mailings that could indicate a person’s vaccination status. This comes after the Assembly voted last week to ban vaccine passports in Wisconsin — a move that’s likely to be vetoed by Evers.

The Assembly could also vote to establish a grant program, administered by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, to aid qualifying municipalities impacted by pollution from perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS.

There’s a proposal on the agenda that could prohibit anyone from labeling food as meat unless it’s “derived from an edible part of the flesh of an animal or any part of an insect.” 

And Republican lawmakers have proposed legislation to temporarily change the rules for where transfer students can play school sports due to the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on schools. It would reverse a rule from the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association that requires students to wait a year to play high school sports after transferring to a new school, unless their parents have moved.