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Republicans set to force emergency rule on absentee ballot drop boxes Monday

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Republicans set to force emergency rule on absentee ballot drop boxes Monday

Jan 10, 2022 | 7:00 am ET
By Henry Redman
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Republicans set to force emergency rule on absentee ballot drop boxes Monday
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An absentee ballots for the April 7 election. (Photo by Henry Redman)

A legislative committee controlled by Republicans is set to take actions on Monday that will change how absentee ballots are treated in Wisconsin elections. 

The move is a continuation of Republican efforts to change election laws as they cast doubt on the results of the 2020 presidential election and the security of future elections

On Monday, the Joint Committee for the Review of Administrative Rules (JCRAR) will conduct a vote by paper ballot — meaning the votes will be collected without a public hearing or meeting — to force the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC) to make emergency rules guiding the use of drop boxes to collect absentee ballots and the practice of local elections clerks of correcting minor errors in voter and witness addresses on ballot envelopes. 

These two issues, which have been in effect as guidance from the WEC for years, have been in the sights of Republicans since the 2020 election. Republicans say both are vulnerable to fraud, despite evidence to the contrary and the fact that both practices have been common in both Democratic and Republican voting parts of the state for a number of elections prior to 2020. 

“Many voters in this state no longer trust the Wisconsin Elections Commission to act in a fair and impartial manner in carrying out election law in this state,” Sen. Steve Nass (R-Whitewater), co-chair of JCRAR, said in a statement late last month. “Evidence of the commissioners and staff leadership repeatedly ignoring state election law has now come from several reviews.” 

“The Legislature has options to address the conduct of those at WEC,” he continued. “One option is to utilize the full powers of the Wisconsin Administrative Rules Law. Senate Republicans on JCRAR stand ready to act … After nearly a year of discussions amongst legislators on matters that are well known to many voters, the time for talking is over in the Legislature.” 

Both issues have also been the topic of lawsuits brought by Republican politicians and right-wing legal outlets such as the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty. Earlier in this legislative session, Republicans passed bills that would have changed the rules surrounding both practices but they were vetoed by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers. 

Last year, the Legislative Audit Bureau (LAB) conducted an investigation into the election and wrote a report on its findings that was criticized by WEC staff and commissioners, as well as election observers across the state, for containing errors and condoning Republican election conspiracies. The report recommended a number of changes to state election laws and rules, some concerning drop boxes and correcting addresses. 

In a November meeting, the WEC met to address the report and, in a rare moment of bipartisan unanimity, began the process of creating the rules recommended by the LAB. 

​​“In the spirit of accepting the guidance and recommendations of the Legislative Audit Bureau as constructive criticism, even when they aren’t very sensible and even when they’re somewhat petty, I believe that we might as well start off on the right foot here and say, ‘Yeah, let’s send this over to the Legislature to let them work on the promulgation of this rule,’” Commissioner Dean Knudson said. 

Yet the WEC’s actions haven’t been enough for Nass and others on the rules committee, who now seek to force the commission into the emergency rule process — which is faster than the normal rulemaking process that often takes more than a year. 

Both the normal and emergency rulemaking process require approval from both Evers and JCRAR. Meaning that if Evers’ believes the drafted rule is too restrictive he can stop its progress, just as he vetoed the legislation on the same issues last year. 

JCRAR is made up of ten members from both chambers of the Legislature and contains four Democrats. Paper ballots are due to be turned in by 1:30 p.m. on Monday.