A Republican bill to limit the hours and days for absentee voting is being lambasted as an attempt at voter suppression.
Assembly Bill 54 is intended to set up “equal and fair standards” for voting, said John Soper, a staffer for Rep. Duey Stroebel, R-Saukville, the bill’s author.
But Democrats say it’s just another attempt to keep people from the polls.
If passed, the bill could have big ramifications for the Coulee Region, where clerks sometimes extend their hours to accommodate voters.
The bill would confine in-person absentee voting to 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday in the three weeks leading up to an election week. It also would prohibit a clerk from remaining open to receive in-person ballots more than 40 hours a week during that three-week absentee-voting period. Absentee voters who don’t vote in person at the clerk’s office mail in their ballots.
“In the past, some municipal clerks opened for large swaths of time seven days a week not available to all Wisconsinites,” Soper said. “The fairest way is to be open the same range of hours.”
State Rep. Steve Doyle, D-Onalaska, disputes that argument, insisting instead that the bill aims to suppress votes.
“It’s a horrible idea,” Doyle said Monday. “It’s clearly an attempt to make it more difficult to vote. It’s sad that we’ve spent the past several years trying to make it easier to vote, and now (this would) make it harder.
“It’s un-American,” he said.
Marilyn Pedretti, one of Doyle’s colleagues on the La Crosse County Board, is clerk for the Town of Holland.
“I’m furious,” Pedretti said. “It’s ridiculous.”
Her main complaint echoes the objections of clerks in other small towns, many of whom have full-time jobs that virtually require them to be open outside of the 7:30 to 5 window.
“On Wednesdays, my office hours are from 3 to 6 p.m.” to accommodate people who can’t make it earlier, she said.
“Clerks set up after hours to help as a common courtesy,” Pedretti said. “This bill says I can’t do that. I just don’t get it.”
Although Pedretti’s other office hours are 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Mondays and Thursdays, “sometimes I work more than 40 hours a week when it’s needed. That’s my choice.
“To tell me not to come in early and stay late is ridiculous,” Pedretti said. “We don’t tell legislators what hours to work, so why should they tell us. This is unhelpful. Unhelpful.”
Onalaska Clerk Cari Burmaster also opposes the bill.
“What’s most concerning to me is that we’re open over the noon hour,” she said. “That means we’re open for 45 hours.”
Burmaster wondered whether the bill would require her stipulate five hours during which absentee balloting wouldn’t be allowed.
Nikki Elsen, deputy clerk for the city of La Crosse, raised the same question, because that office also is open from 8 to 5.
State and local officials say the number of in-person and mail-in absentee voters varies, depending on the election. For example, 78 percent of the 658,299 absentee ballots in the general election in November were in-person absentees, while just 58 percent of the 264,165 absentees in the June recall election were in person, according to the Government Accountability Board.