A Republican lawmaker is proposing limits on the hours and days voters can cast in-person absentee ballots even as such voting increases in popularity in the state.
The bill would have a heavy impact in Madison, one of several municipalities that have held extended hours on nights and weekends to accommodate in-person absentee voters.
Critics said the bill, introduced in the state Assembly late last week, would force municipalities to spend more on mail-in absentee ballots while making it harder for people to vote.
The measure proposed by Rep. Duey Stroebel, R-Saukville, would prohibit clerks from opening early, late or on weekends to accommodate voters wishing to cast their ballots before Election Day.
Stroebel aide John Soper said the bill aims to give residents of smaller communities the same access to absentee voting as those in larger communities that can afford to hold extended balloting.
"To have those disparities for in-person absentee balloting, Representative Stroebel believes, is not fair," Soper said. "His focus is on equality in the system. That's the way he views it."
Democrats are heading in a different direction. Rep. Sandy Pasch, D-Shorewood, is drafting a bill that would allow clerks to designate one or more additional locations for in-person absentee balloting beyond the local clerk's office.
Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, called the Stroebel bill the latest among the "anti-democracy measures" proposed by Republicans, such as eliminating same-day voter registration — which was floated but shelved late last year — and the controversial voter ID law passed in 2011 that's still tied up in the courts.
"Why is it Republicans feel there are too many people in Wisconsin who are voting?" Barca asked.
More than half a million voters
Casting a ballot before Election Day at the local clerk's office has become popular in Wisconsin, with more than 500,000 voters doing so in the November general election, according to figures released Monday by the state Government Accountability Board.
Assembly Bill 54 would confine such in-person absentee voting to 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday in the three weeks leading up to an election week. It also would prohibit a clerk from remaining open to receive in-person ballots more than 40 hours a week during that three-week absentee-voting period. Absentee voters who don't vote in person at the clerk's office mail in their ballots.
Diane Hermann-Brown, past president of the Wisconsin Municipal Clerks Association, said she sees a variety of potential problems with Stroebel's bill. Her office in the city of Sun Prairie is open 42 1/2 hours a week normally, and, by statute, 43 1/2 hours the week before an election. She wondered about the practical effect of having her staff turn away absentee ballots while accepting dog licenses and handling other duties.
Hermann-Brown also questioned what clerks would do if absentee voters are still in line at 5 p.m. Sun Prairie had an hour and a half wait among absentee voters at 5 p.m. on the Friday before the November election, she said.
"This bill, the way it is written, creates a lot of questions and confusion," she said.
Driving up costs?
Madison City Clerk Maribeth Witzel-Behl said the bill also could drive up costs. Witzel-Behl said the cost of each mailed absentee ballot is $4.79 compared to 55 cents for ballots cast in person. In all, 18,752 people cast ballots at the counter while 11,652 people mailed in their ballots in November's election, she said.
Limiting in-person absentee voting "really would have a big effect on Madison and I think Milwaukee, where not everyone is very close to the clerk's office," she said. "The bigger the city, the longer the travel time to get to the city clerk's office."
The proposal could be even more vexing for clerks in small towns, who often work part-time and at the convenience of local residents, said Richard Stadelman, executive director of the Wisconsin Towns Association. Stadelman said it's not unusual for small-town clerks to open their offices on nights and weekends to accommodate in-person absentee voting. He said his group opposes the bill as written.
Soper said Stroebel plans to amend the bill to add flexibility for small communities.