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Proposed changes to voting laws risky and expensive, say local lawmakers

Sheila Harsdorf, left, and Kitty Rhoades

With only days left in the current legislative session, local lawmakers are concerned about an attempt to fast-track a bill that would overhaul voter registration laws.

Companion bills introduced in the Wisconsin Legislature would make voter fraud easier, would increase costs for property taxpayers and are being rushed through without analysis, say Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, R-River Falls, and Assemblywoman Kitty Rhoades, R-Hudson.

Companion bills, Senate Bill 640 and Assembly Bill 895, were introduced March 23 and 24 respectively. Public hearings were held March 31. Two days later the Senate Committee on Labor, Elections and Urban Affairs made one amendment to its bill and recommended passage.

On April 5 the Assembly's Committee on Elections and Campaign Reform voted 5-2 to recommend passage of its bill, with no amendments.

The Legislature goes back into session Tuesday, April 13, and both Rhoades and Harsdorf worry that the bills are on track for adoption before the term ends April 22.

Currently it's up to the voter to initiate registration or any change in registration. The bills seek to use state records, including driver's license information, to automatically register voters. The bills would allow voters to request an absentee ballot for all elections, thus placing new requirements on local governments to distribute those ballots.

"This thing has just got a lot of problems," said Rhoades Monday. "It's moving much too quickly for an issue this complicated and this important."

She added, "Really sensitive information (would be) shared by multiple state agencies. That's never a good thing."

"The changes inherently relax safeguards against voter fraud," said Harsdorf. "For example, a university ID card alone would be offered as proof of residence, even though many students maintain home residency in different states or counties."

The bill also limits the ability of state residents to challenge the eligibility of specific voters. The original versions would allow only residents of the same ward to challenge a ballot. While the Assembly version hasn't been changed, the Senate committee did amend its bill to say residents of the same county can challenge a ballot.

"Local governments would automatically be required to prepare and mail absentee ballots for each election on a permanent basis, without updated individual requests," said Harsdorf. She said town clerks have contacted her, alarmed that they may have to mail thousands of ballots in elections where turnout would be small.

The bills would allow the creation of "satellite absentee ballot stations" in locations such as college dormitories.

"Wisconsin already has same-day voter registration that validates proof of residency," said Harsdorf. "It just takes a few minutes and is pointed to as a national model for ease of voting. Expanding registration in the fashion these bills propose is a recipe for expanding voter fraud."

And that, she said, disenfranchises honest voters.

"This I believe drastically increases the opportunity for voter fraud," agreed Rhoades.

The Department of Administration's analysis of the bill identifies the fiscal effect of the Senate bill as "indeterminate" for the state, towns, counties, school districts, villages and cities.

But the estimate narrative says there will certainly be additional costs for the Government Accountability Board, the Department of Transportation and local government units.

The analysis estimates it would cost up to $1 million for the GAB to upgrade the Statewide Voter Registration System to process voter information shared between agencies. That could take six to 12 months to complete.

Also according to the analysis, the bills require the DOT to give the GAB an electronic transfer of data. That is different from current requirements under which the GAB receives a response code but no actual data -- "an entirely different process."

Assuming up to a million potential voters would have to be contacted by mail for clarification of their registration, postage alone for the GAB could go as high as $280,000, says the fiscal estimate.

"The ability of any elector to become a permanent absentee voter ... will create additional costs at the municipal level for administrative functions such as postage, printing and additional staff needed at the clerk's office and polling place," according to the Department of Administration's fiscal estimate.

Using past experience and predicting a 10% rise in absentee ballots, statewide absentee mailing costs could total as much as $208,181, " that municipalities don't have," says the analysis."

The estimate indicates it would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to hire new state staff and pay contract investigators.

St. Croix County Clerk Cindy Campbell declined to comment on the bill, saying she's been too busy in the past two days preparing for an important county election to carefully read the comments she's received or to study the bill and form an opinion.

Judy Wiff

Judy Wiff has been regional editor for RiverTown’s Wisconsin newspapers since 1996. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and sociology from UW-River Falls. She has worked as a reporter for several weekly newspapers in Wisconsin.