Election Policy Update: Eight Election Bills Vetoed; Census Data Released; Investigations Proceeding

So far during the 2021 session, the Wisconsin Legislature has passed eight bills related to election law and administration, all of which have been vetoed by Governor Tony Evers (D). On August 10, Gov. Evers announced that he had vetoed six election bills in a public ceremony at the Wisconsin Capitol Building:

  • Senate Bill (SB) 203: Explicitly authorizes the use of ballot drop boxes, with restrictions. Veto message
  • SB 204: Changes procedures for those claiming indefinitely confined status due to age, infirmity or illness. Veto message
  • SB 205: Changes policies for special voting deputies that are allowed to assist voters living in assisted care facilities. Veto message
  • SB 210: Allows election observers to be no more than three feet from tables where voting activities are occurring. Under current law, observers must be allowed to be between three and eight feet away. Veto message
  • SB 212: Prohibits local clerks from filling in missing information on absentee ballot envelopes. Veto message
  • SB 292: Requires municipalities that broadcast canvassing proceedings live to record and retain the recording for 22 months. Veto message

Also at the presentation on August 10, Gov. Evers ceremonially vetoed Assembly Bill 173, which would have prohibited individual municipalities from accepting private funds for the purposes of election administration or entering into contracts governing election administration or transferring election responsibilities to a person who does not have that duty under state law. Gov. Evers originally vetoed AB 173 and issued a press release about the bill on June 30.

In early July, Gov. Evers vetoed Assembly Bill 369, which would have allowed local governments to delay certain redistricting requirements and continue using old maps, to account for the delayed release of the 2020 federal census data. Gov. Evers issued a press release and a veto message about the bill.

Census Data Now Available, Beginning the Redistricting Process; Lawsuit Filed Immediately

On August 12, the U.S. Census Bureau released the full set of national census data that it collected in 2020, allowing state and local governments to begin drawing new maps of their political districts. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) announced that the Legislature is hosting a website where any Wisconsin resident can create and submit a proposed statewide, regional, or local district map. The site will accept submissions from September 1 until October 15.

In Wisconsin, the Legislature is responsible for drawing new state and congressional districts after the national census is taken every ten years. However, those maps must also be approved by the governor. If the governor vetoes the Legislature’s maps, the issue could end up being resolved in court.

On August 13, one day following the release of the 2020 census data, a group of six voters sued the Wisconsin Elections Commission in federal court, arguing that there is “no reasonable prospect” that Gov. Evers and the Wisconsin Legislature will reach an agreement on legislative and congressional maps in time for the 2022 election. The lawsuit argues that the court should assume responsibility for the process immediately and establish a timeline for the maps to be completed.

The lawsuit was filed in the District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin. The plaintiffs are represented by Marc Elias, an elections attorney who frequently represents individuals and groups tied to the Democratic Party. Elias announced on Twitter that his legal team has filed similar lawsuits in Louisiana, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania; all four states have divided governments with Democratic governors and Republican-controlled legislatures.

Legislators Continue Investigating 2020 Election Results

Some Republican members of the Wisconsin Legislature are pursuing investigations of the 2020 November election. At the state Republican Party convention on June 26, Speaker Vos announced that he had hired retired Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman to lead an investigation into the results of the 2020 presidential election in Wisconsin. Speaker Vos and Justice Gableman signed a contract paying Gableman $11,000 per month July through October.

The Assembly Committee on Campaigns and Elections, chaired by Representative Janel Brandtjen (R-Menomonee Falls), is also investigating the 2020 election. On August 6, Rep. Brandtjen issued subpoenas to the clerks of Milwaukee and Brown Counties, ordering the clerks to provide her committee with evidence including ballots, voting equipment and software, and forensic images and data logs from election equipment and removable media.

However, a memo from the Wisconsin Legislative Council, a nonpartisan agency that provides legal advice to the Legislature, suggests that legislative committee chairs do not have an independent subpoena power. The memo argues that legislative subpoenas require the signature of the chamber’s presiding officer (the Assembly speaker or the Senate president) and the chamber’s chief clerk to compel testimony and document production.

While Speaker Vos has not commented directly on Rep. Brandtjen’s subpoenas, he has stated he would consider signing legislative subpoenas if Justice Gableman believed they were necessary for his investigation.