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GOP: Clerks can’t say everyone is confined to avoid photo ID

By TODD RICHMOND
Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Wisconsin Legislature’s top Republicans told Democratic county clerks on Friday to stop telling people they can mark themselves as indefinitely confined to get around photo ID requirements for absentee ballots, saying the governor’s stay-at-home order isn’t a lockdown.

Wisconsin voters can request absentee ballots online, but they must upload a photo ID with the application. Voters who are indefinitely confined are exempt from the photo ID requirement.

Dane County Clerk Scott McDonell and Milwaukee County Clerk George Christenson have been advising absentee ballot applicants who can’t upload photos to simply mark themselves as indefinitely confined. They argue that Gov. Tony Evers’ stay-at-home order this week to prevent the spread of the coronavirus means everyone is indefinitely confined.

Democrats have long opposed Republican-authored voter ID requirements, viewing them as a way the GOP tries to suppress voter turnout. Republicans say photo IDs help curb voter fraud, although they have never shown any widespread voter malfeasance in the state.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald asked the Legislative Reference Bureau, which drafts bills and provides legal advice to lawmakers, to analyze the clerks’ advice. The bureau provided Fitzgerald a memo on Thursday that concludes the stay-at-home order contains so many exemptions that everyone is not indefinitely confined as the clerks contend.

“It would not be appropriate to encourage voters to claim to be indefinitely confined because of the governor’s ‘safer at home’ order as a way to avoid presenting voter identification when requesting an absentee ballot,” the memo said. “The order does not even require those who are ill from COVID-19 or at high-risk for becoming sick from it stay at home. …

Some residents for health reasons may be confined to their homes, but this determination must be made on a case-by-case basis and not applied as a blanket policy to all voters.”

The memo warns that clerks who intentionally neglect their duties or knowingly exceed their authority could face forfeitures, criminal charges or be disqualified to serve as an election official for five years.

Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos issued a joint statement Friday saying McDonell and Christiansen were threatening the integrity of the election.

“Democrats continue to look for ways to circumvent the Photo ID law. … At a time when our state should be coming together, it’s sad that liberal clerks see it as an opportunity for political gain,” they said

Neither Christenson or McDonell responded to Friday morning emails seeking comment.

The memo marks another chapter in a spring election season that has become more uncertain by the day as the coronavirus spreads. Evers has refused to order any changes to election procedures. Election protocols are part of state law and Evers’ lacks the ability to unilaterally alter statutes, even during emergencies, according to the Republican-led Legislature’s attorneys.

For now, at least, the election is set to go on as scheduled on April 7.

But a host of groups have filed federal lawsuits over the last week seeking to postpone or cancel in-person voting and ease the process for obtaining absentee ballots online and registering online.

A coalition of voting rights groups and labor unions filed the latest suit, on Thursday. The coalition, which includes the League of Women Voters, Souls to the Polls, the American Federation of Teachers and the Service Employees International Union, want a judge delay in-person voting at least until the stay-at-home order expires April 24.

The lawsuit also seeks to lift requirements that absentee voters include copies of proof-of-residency documents and photos IDs with ballot applications and prohibit election officials from enforcing in-person voting requirements until the stay-at-home order expires.

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