Assembly elections committee gets clerks’ views on election law changes
At an informational hearing of the Wisconsin Assembly Committee on Campaigns and Elections on Thursday, county and municipal clerks — and their expert opinions — were invited to weigh in on ways in which the state’s election systems can be improved.
The hearing continued the committee’s focus on bipartisanship under the body’s chair, Rep. Scott Krug (R-Nekoosa). Since Krug took over the committee’s gavel from Rep. Janel Brandtjen (R-Menomonee Falls), one of the Legislature’s most vocal election conspiracy theorists, he’s repeatedly said he wants to keep it focused on areas of state election law where members can find agreement, not indulging the most fringe aspects of the election-denying right.
“I just want to lay some groundwork for how we are already experiencing safe, secure and good election process in Wisconsin, but also understand we have some things we can improve on,” Krug said.
As he wrapped up the hearing, he added that the clerks will be at “the top of the list” of people who are looped in to the committee’s work as it tries to get bills signed into law during the legislative session. “We want your input, we want your direction,” said Krug. “We are not the experts, we’re just the people who end up voting on the policies.”
The bipartisanship of the Assembly committee — at one point Democratic Rep. Lee Snodgrass and Republican Rep. Donna Rozar gestured to each other across the hearing room table about plans to work together on an issue — is a marked contrast from the Senate. Republicans in that chamber and the Senate election committee have spent recent weeks inviting election deniers to testify and attempting to remove the state’s chief election official from her post.
“The clerks really appreciate that we’re getting listened to, asked questions, they asked what our problems are,” Dane County Clerk Scott McDonell said after the meeting. “So it’s refreshing, I thought it’s very different from what is happening in the Senate.”
Invited to speak at the hearing were four county clerks, four municipal clerks and an elections expert from the National Conference of State Legislatures. Given the ability to weigh in on potential changes to how they administer the state’s elections, the clerks repeatedly stressed how important it is for the Legislature to keep clerks’ options open. They noted that a policy that might help the election workers in Madison or Milwaukee doesn’t help the part-time clerks working in small towns of less than 300 people.
“We love the fact that we are so decentralized, but that does mean one size doesn’t fit all,” Elena Hilby, the Sun Prairie city clerk, said.
During the back and forth between legislators and the clerks, a proposal to allow election workers to start processing absentee ballots before Election Day appeared to have the most momentum.
The issue has repeatedly come up in the Legislature because current law prohibits election workers from starting the long process of opening and processing ballots until after polls open. Especially since the use of absentee ballots has remained high after the COVID-19 pandemic, the large volume of ballots to process in some of the state’s larger cities causes results to be announced in the early hours of the Wednesday after the election — a reality that some conspiracy theorists have used to make claims about late night ballot dumps from Milwaukee changing the winner.
All of the county clerks who testified said they would support a bill that allows absentee ballots to be processed, but not counted, ahead of Election Day in order to save time and get results reported faster. Marathon County Clerk Kim Trueblood noted that in her county the results from the city of Wausau are always the last to come in because of the larger number of absentee ballots cast in the city.
“I think we’re all there,” Krug said.
The only source of disagreement at the hearing came during the discussion of drop boxes for the return of absentee ballots. Drop boxes had been used for years to collect ballots, yet after the 2020 election, Republicans across the state turned against them, complaining that they were vulnerable to allowing fraudulent votes and the practice of “ballot harvesting,” when one person returns dozens or hundreds of ballots.
Last year, the state Supreme Court ruled that state law doesn’t allow drop boxes outside of a municipal clerk’s office. The committee discussed the possibility of legislation allowing their use and what safeguards would be required.
Krug said that he believes drop boxes should be allowed and that he doesn’t see any practical difference between the security of a metal box outside of a municipal building and a metal postal box on a street corner. Krug said that he thinks the boxes can be especially helpful for the rural residents of his district. In smaller towns across the state, the part-time municipal clerk is not able to hold extended early in-person absentee voting hours, he said, so a drop box allows people to vote early and safely return their ballot.
Rep. Dave Murphy countered, saying, “If I harvested 100 ballots, a drop box is easier” to use fraudulently than a U.S. mailbox.
Krug added he knows many members of his caucus aren’t going to support a drop box bill because it’s become such a hot political issue. Instead, he suggested county clerk’s offices be used as in-person absentee voting locations to accommodate the lack of opportunity that many rural voters face. Under current law, early absentee voting must occur at municipal offices or a location designated by their municipal clerk.
Elsewhere in the Legislature on Thursday, a group of lawmakers began circulating a resolution to impeach the administrator of the Wisconsin Elections Commission, and a pair of lawmakers started circulating a bill that would end Wisconsin’s membership in ERIC — a multi-state coalition that allows state election officials to track when someone moves to or dies in another state and update the voter registration lists accordingly.