Judge Rules Bail, Welfare Reform Questions Can Appear on Spring Ballot

Dane County Judge Rhonda Lanford ruled February 20 that two questions, a constitutional amendment on bail reform and an advisory referendum on welfare eligibility, will appear on the April 4 spring ballot in Wisconsin.

A lawsuit filed January 31 argued that the questions were sent to county clerks one day past the deadline required under state law and thus should be delayed until the next statewide election. The lawsuit was filed by EXPO Wisconsin, a community organizing group for formerly incarcerated people, and WISDOM, a faith-based activist organization. The groups argued that the state’s delay deprived them of time to organize voters in opposition to the measures.

The Wisconsin Legislature formally submitted the questions to the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC), which then directed county clerks to include the question on the 2023 spring ballot. Judge Langford ruled that the Legislature complied with the requirements of the law by submitting the questions to WEC by the deadline and that the one-day delay did not cause the plaintiffs irreparable harm or otherwise harm the election process. An attorney for the plaintiffs said he does not anticipate they will appeal the ruling before the April election.

These questions were among the first items to pass both houses of the Legislature this year. Both measures passed the Senate on January 17 and the Assembly two days later, with most Republican legislators and a handful of Democratic members voting in support. The Wisconsin Legislature has the power, by passing a joint resolution, to place a constitutional amendment or advisory referendum on the ballot; under state law, the governor plays no role in either process.

The two ballot measures are as follows:

Senate Joint Resolution (SJR) 2 proposes amending the Wisconsin Constitution with respect to bail and pre-conviction release for people accused of a crime. It would give the Legislature authority to determine additional conditions for denying pre-conviction release. It would also eliminate the requirement, with respect to violent crimes, that monetary bail may only be imposed to assure an accused’s appearance in court. Instead, it would give judges more discretion in imposing bail on people accused of violent crimes. Amendments to the Wisconsin Constitution must pass both houses of the Legislature in two consecutive sessions and then be approved by a majority of voters on a statewide ballot. The Legislature approved this measure for the first time in 2022.

SJR 4 asks voters whether able-bodied, childless adults should be required to look for work to receive taxpayer-funded welfare benefits. This referendum is strictly advisory, and its outcome will have no effect on state law. The concept of the referendum is related to policies included in the “Stronger Workforce” package of bills introduced by Republican legislators last session. It seems likely that many of these policies will be reintroduced following the spring election.

Spring elections in Wisconsin include local, nonpartisan offices such as mayors, judges, and school boards. This year’s election, to be held April 4, also includes a high-profile Wisconsin Supreme Court race and a special election in the 8th Senate District. The spring primary was held February 21; read the following articles for our coverage of the results: