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Proposed Wisconsin Election Reforms Put Legitimacy, Independence at Risk

Legislators in Wisconsin have proposed sweeping reforms to the state’s election administration apparatus just months before the 2024 election. The legislation would abolish the bipartisan Wisconsin Election Commission (WEC), centralizing election administration authority in an office with no elections experience and subjecting all of the office’s elections-related actions to the approval of the state legislature. This approach to abolishing the WEC would create new opportunities for administrative errors and increase the potential for partisan manipulation.

While Governor Tony Evers said he would veto the bill, Wisconsin serves as a microcosm for broader national debates on electoral integrity. How Wisconsin navigates these changes could set a precedent for other states considering similar reforms.

At a precarious moment for public confidence in elections, state lawmakers should focus their attention on promoting election management structures that put bipartisan cooperation and secure, trustworthy elections front and center – just like the WEC has been doing for years.

The fight to increase partisan influence over elections

In a 2022 report, BPC and the Election Reformers Network warned:

“The growing susceptibility to partisan incentives in election offices undermines the expectation that elections will result in legitimate winners. While, in the past, the individuals administering the elections process operated with relative obscurity, party leaders have targeted them and their offices in the hopes of controlling the voting process. This amplified attention may incentivize extreme partisans to attempt to subvert, undermine, or overturn an election. Acting with political self-interest, partisan officials could use their power to undermine legitimate and fair elections and overturn the will of the people.”

Our nation’s roughly 10,000 election administrators are committed public servants tirelessly devoted to free and fair elections. Yet, to date, this structure has primarily relied on election officials operating with good faith; institutions like the WEC provide bipartisan checks and balances on election administration.

As it currently stands, the WEC—tasked with administering and enforcing election laws—requires bipartisan cooperation and buy-in:

  • The commission is led by six commissioners appointed by the governor and state legislative leaders from the majority and minority parties.
  • The commission is led by a nonpartisan administrator appointed by members of the commission and confirmed by the state Senate.
  • Decisions of the commission must have support from commissioners of both parties.

Under proposed reforms Wisconsin’s electoral system would change significantly, limiting bipartisanship and introducing further risk of partisan clashes. The reforms would:

  • Abolish the WEC.
  • Make the Secretary of State—an office with no electoral responsibilities currently—the state’s chief election official.
  • Require state legislative review and approval of Secretary of State’s decisions.

Sweeping reorganization opens the door to glitches, errors, and delays

While secretaries of state across the country are frequently the chief elections officer in their respective jurisdictions, Wisconsin’s currently performs no electoral duties. The office only employs two officials, with a budget of $250,000 per year. Despite having no statutory responsibilities in the area, Democratic Secretary of State Sarah Godlewski has expressed interest in expanding her office’s role in election policy, concerning the state’s current election administrators. The proposed reforms would place enormous responsibility in Godlewski’s hands just months before the 2024 election.

A comprehensive review of voters’ trust in the electoral system completed as part of the MIT Election Data + Science Lab’s Mapping Election Administration and Election Science project confirms that “People’s attitudes are based in part on their own experiences with the electoral process and election administration. What they do not experience firsthand, they learn about from the news media, elites, and experts.” Changing how elections are administered within months of a high turnout presidential election could lead to technical errors and mistakes during voting and tabulation, negatively impacting voter confidence.

The risk of requiring legislative approval for administrative decisions

Not only would this legislation transfer state election authority from the WEC to the Secretary of State, it specifies that “Except for action related to the internal operations and procedures of the office, the office of the secretary of state may take no action with regard to election administration without getting prior approval from the standing committees in each house of the legislature with jurisdiction over election administration.”

No other state in the country allows the legislature this level of control over routine election operations. While local elections officials are often elected in partisan races, 86% of those races are uncontested, insulating them from the pressure of campaigning and the need to appeal to partisan extremes. State legislatures are inherently political, with parties exercising significant influence in their members’ votes and fundraising efforts. Regardless of which party holds the majority, this dynamic shifts incentives for decision-making away from those that support free and fair elections and toward those that benefit the party in power.

Furthermore, given the partisan split between the Democratic Secretary of State and Republican-controlled House and Senate, the changes in this legislation would lead to prolonged political battles over even the most routine administrative decisions. This would delay decision-making and complicate administration for Wisconsin’s 1800 municipal clerks and cast election administration as a partisan fight – damaging voters’ perceptions of the state’s elections.

Preserving integrity

The WEC is a model for bipartisan election administration. The integrity of its work has been upheld and vindicated through extensive audits and litigation. Centralizing election authority in a partisan office, particularly one without experience in electoral duties, and requiring approval from the state legislature heightens the risk of partisan interference in what should be a nonpartisan process.

Ensuring the fairness and integrity of elections is fundamental to maintaining public trust and the legitimacy of electoral outcomes. Any reforms to election management structures should be approached with a commitment to transparency, nonpartisanship, and secure elections at their core.

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