Wisconsin Senate To Vote On New Absentee Voting Limits, Policing Bills

The state Senate is scheduled to vote Wednesday on several bills that would put new restrictions on absentee voting in Wisconsin, as well as proposals that would change policing in the state, including a statewide use of force standard for law enforcement. 

The election bills are part of a Republican package of proposals that largely responds to GOP criticism of the 2020 presidential election. 

The plans up for a vote Wednesday include a bill that would put new restrictions on absentee ballot dropboxes, which were widely used during the last election as clerks navigated a surge in early voting during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Under the bill, municipalities could have no more than four drop boxes, depending on their population. The boxes would also have to be located on municipal property, other than public parks, and be tamper- and moisture-resistant. Some boxes would have to be under continuous video surveillance.

Supporters argue the change would increase ballot security and voter confidence. Opponents say it would make it more difficult for some voters to cast their ballots early.

Another bill would set new limits on who could be considered an “indefinitely confined” voter in Wisconsin, a group that grew dramatically in 2020. Under current state law, an indefinitely confined voter is defined as someone who is “confined because of age, physical illness or infirmity or is disabled for an indefinite period.” The law allows voters to identify themselves as such by “signing a statement to that effect.” It also allows these voters to provide a witness signature as proof of their identity for purposes of voting, rather than a copy of their photo ID.

Under the new proposal, indefinitely confined voters over the age of 65 must make the statement that they are confined under oath. If the voter is under 65, their statement must be signed by a health care provider. Making a false statement about indefinitely confined status would come with a felony charge, up to a $10,000 fine or up to three and a half years in prison. 

The bill would also remove a person’s indefinitely confined status every two years, unless they submit a new application, specify that an outbreak of an epidemic in a voter’s community wouldn’t qualify them for indefinitely confined status, and call on the Wisconsin Elections Commission to remove the indefinitely confined status of each voter who received that status between March 12, 2020, and Nov. 6, 2020.

Another bill under consideration on Wednesday would eliminate the photo ID waiver for indefinitely confined voters, require absentee ballot applications be separate from absentee ballot envelopes, and eliminate the option for indefinitely confined voters, overseas voters, and all other voters, other than military voters, to receive an absentee ballot automatically for any election. It would also bar election officials from sending an absentee ballot or absentee ballot application to any voter who hasn’t requested one. 

Lawmakers will also take up a bill that would create a felony penalty for nursing home employees that attempt to influence a resident’s voting behavior and a bill that would bar Wisconsin communities from accepting grant funding to help pay for elections. 

The bill barring the grant funding has already passed the state Assembly. If approved, it would move to Gov. Tony Evers’ desk. The governor hasn’t said whether he will sign it.

None of the other election-related proposals have been taken up in the Assembly. If the measures are approved in both chambers, Evers could veto them. The governor hasn’t weighed in on specific bills, but has said he is opposed to any measure that makes it harder to vote.

Policing Bills Would Change Use Of Force Policies, Penalize ‘Defunding The Police’

One of the law enforcement bills up for a Senate vote Wednesday would penalize local governments that cut law enforcement budgets to shift resources to other programs in their communities, a move activists sometimes call “defunding the police.”

Under the bill, a municipality that decreases its budget for hiring, training and retaining police officers would lose the same amount of money in state support. 

Supporters argue the bill promotes public safety. Opponents of the proposal argue it will discourage communities from attempting new, non-traditional programs aimed at discouraging and combating crime, like increasing mental health and social support services.

Another policing bill under consideration Wednesday was recommended by a bipartisan task force on policing. The task force was created last summer in the wake of widespread unrest following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and severe injury of Jacob Blake in Kenosha at the hands of police officers. 

Under the plan, police use of chokeholds would be banned in Wisconsin, except in life-threatening situations or in self-defense. 

Another bill would create a statewide use of force standard for law enforcement. Under the standard, “officers are required to make every effort to preserve and protect human life and the safety of all persons.” It says deadly force may be used only as a “last resort when the law enforcement officer reasonably believes that all other options have been exhausted.”

The bill also requires officers who witness what they believe to be an inappropriate use of force incident to report it, and creates whistleblower protections for those reporters.

None of the policing bills have been voted on yet in the Assembly. 

Bill Would Increase Penalties On Vaccine Destruction 

Senate lawmakers will also vote on a bill that would make it a felony to intentionally destroy or spoil a vaccine, drug or therapeutic treatment.

Under the bill, a person who is intentionally reckless with a vaccine and renders it unsafe or unusable could be charged with a Class I felony, which comes with a penalty of up to $10,000 or three and a half years in prison. 

Last year, a former pharmacist at Aurora Medical Center in Grafton was arrested after admitting to deliberately spoiling more than 500 doses of coronavirus vaccine. This week, the man was sentenced to three years in federal prison and three years of supervised release.

The plan has yet to be voted on in the Assembly. 

Editor’s note: This story will be updated.