Wessels

Karen Wessels, left, registers to vote in the April 2014 election with poll worker Nancy Neevel. Under a new bill, voters would be able to register online up until 20 days prior to an election.

MADISON -- Wisconsin would become the 26th state to offer online voter registration under a bill up for a public hearing this morning.

Several Dane County Democrats signed on as co-sponsors to the bill late last week, but they withdrew their support Monday because of several concerns, including that it limits registration options for certain voters, such as college students, seniors and low-income people, and is moving too quickly to address problems they have raised about it.

The bill would allow eligible voters with driver’s licenses or state-issued IDs to register to vote on a secure website maintained by the Government Accountability Board. Voters could also update their address information on the website. The bill allows GAB and the Department of Transportation to coordinate their records for verification purposes.

Currently, voters can register by mail or with a special registration deputy no later than the 20th day before an election, a time frame that the bill would also apply to online registration. Voters currently also can register with a local clerk’s office up until the Friday before an election and at the polls on election day.

The bill also eliminates special registration deputies, who are often volunteers working with groups like the League of Women Voters and trained by a local clerk’s office to register members of the public to vote. Bill co-author Rep. Kathleen Bernier, R-Chippewa Falls, said the online system would allow anyone with a laptop or tablet to help voters register online, but the registrant would need a valid ID.

Those with other forms of proof of residence would have to register in person.

The GAB would upload voter registration information into a national database, the Electronic Registration Information Center.

“The technology is long overdue,” Bernier said. “This will be a huge money saver and time saver for local governments in getting rid of as much paper as possible.”

Bernier said the changes likely wouldn’t take effect until after the 2016 presidential election because the upfront cost of the new system isn’t included in the 2015-17 budget.

Debra Cronmiller, president of the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, said the group supports online registration but has concerns that eliminating registration deputies will make it harder to register those who can’t use the online system.

“If you’re not already registered with DOT, if you don’t have a record with DMV, the online system’s not going to benefit you much,” Cronmiller said. “There’s all sorts of new obstacles that would be created without on-the-street deputized folks.”

The bill would define special registration deputies as those who help on election day at polling places. Bernier said the elimination of registration deputies prior to election day would also reduce errors or fraud.

“This is cleaner, better, more efficient,” she said.

Bill co-author Sen. Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, said in a statement that online voter registration would reduce errors associated with paper registration, and joining the national network would protect against fraud.

“Wisconsin’s strong voter ID law has finally taken effect. We now need to take steps to strengthen the security of the voter registration process in order to prevent voter fraud,” LeMahieu said. “This legislation will help bring Wisconsin’s elections laws into the 21st century.”

The legislation — SB 295 and AB 389 — was circulated among legislators Thursday afternoon with co-sponsorship requests due back within 21 hours. It was introduced late Friday afternoon.

Rep. Melissa Sargent, D-Madison, said she signed on initially because of support from local clerks, but withdrew her support Monday for several reasons, including a concern that college students whose driver’s license addresses don’t match their campus address wouldn’t be able to use it, the elimination of special registration deputies and the fast pace that the bill is moving from introduction to public hearing.

Dane County Clerk Scott McDonell said he initially advised supporting the bill because online voter registration is long overdue in Wisconsin. But in a later memo to Dane County legislators he and Madison City Clerk Maribeth Witzel-Behl suggested five changes, including ensuring that voters who move can upload an acceptable proof of residence other than a driver’s license in order to use the online system.

“We assume students would be the primary users,” McDonell said. “(If they can’t) that’s a major problem.”

Reps. Terese Berceau, D-Madison, a longtime advocate for online voter registration, and Robb Kahl, D-Monona, said earlier Monday that they would remain co-sponsors, but changed their minds by later in the day after hearing from colleagues.

“I thought being on there would be some leverage to get changes,” Berceau said. “But there is absolutely no trust in my caucus of the Republicans, and eventually no one wanted to go forward with this bill when we hadn’t reached agreement yet on some amendments.”

The bill also requires GAB to maintain electronic poll lists, allows the GAB to require a test for chief election inspectors and moves up the deadline for absentee ballots to be submitted.

Currently they must be postmarked by election day and received by 4 p.m. the following Friday.

Under the bill, the ballots must be received by 8 p.m. on election day when polls close.

Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota and Nebraska are among the 25 states and the District of Columbia that allow online voter registration, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The bill is scheduled for a joint public hearing at 9 a.m. Tuesday before the Senate Committee on Elections and Local Government and Assembly Committee on Campaigns and Elections.

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