February 10, 2016

Concerns about proposed early voting changes

A voting rights group is raising questions about a proposal that would add new restrictions to in-person absentee voting in Wisconsin.

The bill from Republican state Representative Duey Stroebel (R-Saukville) would limit the hours municipal clerks can be open for early voting before an election to weekdays, between 7:30 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. It also bans in-person absentee voting on weekends or after hours by appointment. Stroebel says the goal of the bill is to “standardize voting statewide to make the voting process more equal and fair, and I believe that this bill does just that. There is room for reasonable flexibility for municipalities, while still ensuring equal and fair opportunities to vote statewide.”

The Wisconsin League of Women Voters argues the bill could make it harder for some people to vote though, and League President Melanie Ramey says there’s no rational reason to restrict those hours. Ramey says “we should be encouraging ways that make it easier to vote, not doing things that make it more difficult.”

Ramey says proposals such as Stroebel’s are “undemocratic and just unacceptable.”

AUDIO: Melanie Ramey (:15)

Ramey says many of the clerks offering those extended hours do so because voters want increased access to the polls. Wisconsin law allows any legal voter to cast their ballot up to three weeks before an election, either in person at their municipal clerk’s office or by mail. Ramey says those options have been very effective in getting more people to vote, especially when weekend hours allow them to cast a ballot without having to miss work.

The State Government Accountability Board says over 500,000 Wisconsin voters cast in-person absentee ballots before last November’s election. Larger metro areas, such as Milwaukee and Madison, also frequently held weekend hours to accommodate long lines of early voters. Stroebel contends not all communities have that kind of access though, and the system should allow equal access statewide.

The bill was introduced at the Capitol this week and already has proposed changes pending. Stroebel on Tuesday released a amendment that eliminates a 40 hour weekly cap on office hours, after it created confusion among clerks.

The bill has not yet been scheduled for a legislative committee hearing.

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