By SCOTT BAUER
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Wisconsin Senate approved Republican-backed bills Wednesday that would create new hurdles for the elderly and disabled to cast absentee ballots, limit the number and location of ballot drop boxes and impose new penalties for violating election law.
All of the measures are almost certain to be vetoed by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, who has said he opposes anything that makes it more difficult to vote.
The proposals are among more than a dozen election-related changes that Republicans are pushing this year after former President Donald Trump’s narrow defeat in the battleground state. They are part of a national push by Republicans to change election laws after President Joe Biden’s win. Evers is expected to present his opposition to the Republican push to make it more difficult to vote as a central part of his 2022 election campaign, since his veto stands in the way of them getting enacted.
“These bills are in seek of a problem that does not exist in the state of Wisconsin,” said Democratic Rep. Melissa Agard, of Madison. “They’re making it harder for our friends and neighbors across the state to vote, especially our seniors, especially our people with disabilities, especially people of color. … Plain and simple, this is voter suppression and that to me is not OK.”
Republican backers said the bills were meant to address problems and irregularities that arose from the 2020 presidential election.
“We’re not trying to overturn the election. My colleagues are not trying to overturn the last election,” said Republican Sen. Alberta Darling, of Whitefish Bay. “We’re not trying to say there’s a ‘big lie.’”
The bills now head to the Assembly, where Republican Speaker Robin Vos voiced support and said they were just the beginning of elections changes the Legislature would consider.
One bill would require most elderly and disabled people who are indefinitely confined to show photo ID in order to vote absentee; require all absentee voters to fill out more paperwork and show their ID every time they vote absentee, rather than just the first time as is current law; and require voters who are confined to apply to get an absentee ballot every year, rather than have them sent automatically as they are now.
It passed on an 18-14 vote, with all Democrats against along with Republican Sens. Kathy Bernier, chairwoman of the Elections Committee, and Sen. Ron Cowles.
Another bill, passed on a party line vote, would make it a felony for an employee of a nursing home or other care facility to coerce an occupant to apply for, or not apply for, an absentee ballot. The bill is so broadly written that any comment or action related to absentee ballots could be prosecuted as a potential violation, according to Law Forward, an advocacy group formed in part to fight measures that restrict access to the polls.
The Senate also passed a bill on a voice vote that would limit the number of ballot drop boxes in any community and restrict where they can be located. Municipalities with populations under 70,000 can only have a drop box at the election clerk’s office. Larger cities can have three additional drop boxes on municipal property, including police and fire stations, but not public parks.
Many communities across Wisconsin had multiple drop boxes to make it easier for voters to return ballots during the presidential election last year amid a record surge in absentee voting due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Republicans in Wisconsin have already approved a review of the 2020 election by the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau and hired retired police officers to investigate unfounded reports of widespread voter fraud. Trump’s narrow loss to Biden by about 20,600 votes in Wisconsin has already withstood recounts in Milwaukee and Dane counties and numerous state and federal lawsuits.
The Senate on Wednesday also gave final approval to a bill it previously supported that would generally prohibit counties and municipalities from accepting grants or donations from private entities to help run elections.
That bill comes after the nonprofit Center for Tech and Civic Life awarded more than $6 million to five Wisconsin cities to help with the November election. The nonprofit’s $250 million in grants awarded nationwide were funded by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife. Conservatives sued to stop the funding in Wisconsin, but they lost in federal court.
It also passed 18-14, with Bernier and Cowles joining Democrats against it.
Senate passage sends the bill to Evers, who is likely to veto it.
The Senate did not vote as originally planned on a bill that would have required anyone under age 65 who claims to be indefinitely confined to get a signed statement from a doctor, with violators guilty of a felony.
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