Wisconsin voters enshrine amendments that could ‘subvert’ elections in state

While it was clear that Joe Biden and Donald Trump would win their respective primary elections in Wisconsin on Tuesday, voters in the state dealt other surprises by supporting Republican-backed election amendments and registering a significant anti-war protest vote.

Wisconsin voters enshrined in the state constitution on Tuesday two amendments that election officials and voting rights advocates worry will hurt election administration in the state.

The first bans election offices from accessing private grants – a source of revenue that election officials relied on in 2020 to run elections during the pandemic and have since used to stock voting equipment in polling places.

During the 2020 elections, election offices across the country – already chronically underfunded – accessed grants from the Center for Tech and Civic Life, a non-profit organization funded by Mark Zuckerberg, the Meta CEO, and his wife, Priscilla Chan. The grants were doled out with the explicit purpose of funding Covid-19 mitigation in polling places, and election offices used the money for things like personal protective equipment and to set up drive-through, contactless voting.

Related: Trump rails against ‘migrant crime’ and ‘rigged’ 2020 election at Wisconsin rally

The former mayor of Milwaukee, Tom Barrett, called the grants at the time a “wise investment” in light of long lines at polling places in Milwaukee during the spring elections, and the Rev Greg Lewis, director of Souls to the Polls, described the stakes as “a matter of life and death” for Black residents who were disproportionately affected as Covid-19 spread across Wisconsin in 2020.

In the wake of the 2020 election, Republicans blasted the grant funding, claiming without evidence that it had helped Biden with the election. The funding, pejoratively dubbed “Zuckerbucks” by GOP activists, has remained a key grievance of the Republican party – with 27 states enacting similar measures since 2020.

Claire Woodall, executive director of the Milwaukee election commission, said on Wednesday that without the funding, “what goes into my budget request for election years will be higher – and the city will have to look to other departments for funding”.

Just as consequential for election administration in Wisconsin is a second ballot measure passed on Tuesday, which adds an amendment to the state constitution requiring that “only election officials designated by law may perform tasks in the conduct of primaries, elections, and referendums”. Like the first amendment, the second one was also initially introduced by the GOP-controlled state legislature as a bill that the legislature sent to voters only after the Democratic governor, Tony Evers, killed it with a veto.

It is not immediately clear how the amendment, which very closely resembles existing state statute declaring that “only election officials” are allowed to “conduct an election”, could affect the administration of elections in Wisconsin.

Voting rights groups and critics of the amendment worry the minor disparity between the language in the new constitutional amendment and the existing language in state statute could introduce questions about the role of the many non-election officials whose work is nonetheless vital in ensuring smooth elections.

“What does it mean to ‘perform a task?’” said Ann Jacobs, a Democratic commissioner on the bipartisan Wisconsin elections commission. “Does the person who prints the ballots perform a task? Does the company that programs the tabulators perform a task? Does the maintenance person who moves the tables at a voting site perform a task?”

The commission will issue guidance on those very questions to election clerks across the state in a few weeks, Jacobs said. Whether the Wisconsin elections commission’s guidance will hold is a separate matter. The new language could open the door to litigation, potentially leading to a court interpretation of the amendment that is broader than current state statute.

“This really comes down to how broadly we interpret the constitutional amendment,” said Emily Lau, a staff attorney with the State Democracy Research Initiative at the University of Wisconsin. The courts could, theoretically, affirm existing processes – and could even look to the amendment banning private funding as an opportunity to ensure full public funding for election offices.

An overly broad interpretation of the second ballot measure, on the other hand, could wreak chaos on the electoral process and lead to “subverting elections, in that it would prevent election officials from being able to run safe, secure elections”, said Lau.

Voters register discontent with party nominees

Meanwhile, voters registered their discontent with the presumptive nominees of both parties in the state’s closely watched presidential primary election.

The Listen to Wisconsin campaign, spearheaded by a coalition of progressive voters in the state, encouraged voters to fill in the “uninstructed” on their ballots instead of Joe Biden to send the president a message of disapproval over his handling of Israel’s continuing war on Gaza.

About 8% of voters – just over 48,000 in total – heeded their call, about double Biden’s margin of victory in 2020. The uninstructed campaign was especially strong in Dane county, the home of University of Wisconsin-Madison, an area that Democrats can usually count on for strong support.

“Today, Wisconsinites all across the state woke up to a very strong showing of an anti-war, pro-peace movement in our state,” said Reema Ahmed, the lead organizer of the Listen to Wisconsin campaign during a press conference Wednesday. “The way that Biden won Wisconsin [in 2020] was through a broad coalition – frankly, through a coalition of communities that are represented right here on this call, that were represented on this campaign.”

Many Republicans also voiced opposition to their presumptive nominee, the former president Donald Trump, with about 20% of voters choosing candidates that have already dropped out.

“In both of these cases, it shows that there’s a modest share of the party that is dissenting from the nominee,” said Charles Franklin, professor of law and public policy and director of the Marquette Law School Poll.

The unpopularity of the two presumptive nominees is not unprecedented, Franklin said: in 2016, voters were similarly dissatisfied with Clinton and Trump as the parties’ chosen candidates.

“When two candidates are unpopular, it opens the gates for third party voting.”

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