April 14, 2014
Over the past few years, there have been many changes related to elections and campaigns. Several changes happened in just the past few weeks. For your information, I attached a comprehensive summary of these changes from the nonpartisan Legislative Council.
Voting is a right. It is the foundation of our democratic process. In my seven years as Senator no one asked me to pass laws to limit voting. Yet that is exactly what happened.
A new law (Act 146) limits when a person may vote absentee. In-person absentee voting will now only be conducted between the hours of 8:00 am and 7:00 pm Monday through Friday for two weeks prior to an election. Clerks no longer can make appointments on weekends or late evenings to accommodate voters whose schedule or travel make it impossible to vote on Election Day. Many cities, like Eau Claire, will be required by state law to cut back on the hours they now offer to in-person absentee voters.
In addition, changes were made to what happens at the polling place. Election observers (these are sometimes partisans angling to challenge someone’s ability to vote) may stand or be seated within three feet of the table at which voters sign-in.
Voters are now required to sign a poll list, legibly print their name and date the register. Folks I’ve spoken with are concerned this process, if not done properly, will allow ballots to be rejected in a recount.
Clerks must now choose partisan election workers from outside the political subdivision (town, village or ward) if partisan poll workers cannot be found within the town, village or ward. Before this law passed, clerks could choose local nonpartisan workers if no partisan worker was found. Many people in rural areas are hesitant to declare themselves as partisan or go through a political party to have their names submitted as partisan poll workers.
Several other bills passed that address voting in nursing homes, counting of write-in ballots, reporting of election fraud – of which there is very little – and audits to take voters who move off the rolls. These bills are detailed in the Legislative Council memo.
Changes were also made to political donations. Most notably, lobbyists can now contribute earlier in campaigns and employers can dramatically increase the money they spend to convince employees to give to a candidate.
The new law increases – by 40 times – the legal amount employers can spend to entice employees to contribute to a candidate. Candidate contributions by corporations are banned in Wisconsin. But chief executives get around the ban by asking spouses and employees to contribute. Under the new law (Act 153) corporations will be able to spend up to $20,000 to encourage employees to contribute to campaigns.
The basic problem with this practice is the power imbalance between an employee and the employer. Just like it’s hard to say ‘stop it’ to a sexually aggressive boss, it’s hard to say ‘no’ when the boss says, “Where’s your contribution? Everyone else has given.” Laws protect employees from sexual harassment by a boss. But now it’s perfectly legal for employers to not only can ask employees to contribute but they can spend $20,000 to entice the employees.
The good news is the bill to increase the limit for state campaign contributions (already at $10,000 total) did not pass the Senate. The bad news – for democracy – is the recent US Supreme Court decision to eliminate the aggregate limits on federal elections. It is too early to know if additional court decisions will undo Wisconsin’s law.
Money in elections has become a cancer on our democracy. Wisconsin should go much further in opening wide the opportunities for early voting and closing the spigot for out-of-state big money.
I was thrilled when many communities in Wisconsin overwhelmingly passed referenda supporting a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. Regardless of their partisan leaning, voters are disgusted with money in politics. For example, in Waukesha the referenda passed with 69% support.
Finally, we still await the state Supreme Court’s ruling on the constitutionality of the Voter ID law. The law was blocked from enforcement shortly after it was signed into law in 2011. The justices have not indicated when they will rule on this matter and a federal judge in Milwaukee is also considering two more lawsuits. Governor Walker said he will call the Legislature into Special Session if the court finds the Voter ID law unconstitutional.
I appreciate your advocacy on fair and open elections and campaigns. It is through citizen advocacy that democracy will thrive. Please feel free to contact me to share your views on legislation and I will continue to keep you informed on issues of concern.
State Senator 31st District