'Shame!' Wisconsin protesters try to block GOP lame-duck bills

Nearly 250 miles from the din of protests at the Wisconsin State Capitol over Republican lawmakers’ plans during a lame-duck session, county clerks were quietly questioning some of the GOP’s proposals.

Legislation proposed during a special session before Democratic Gov.-elect Tony Evers takes office to move the state’s 2020 presidential primary from April to March. The change would benefit a conservative state Supreme Court candidate who wouldn’t have to face re-election as Democrats turn out in high numbers to choose their presidential nominee.

The proposal would mean Wisconsinites would vote three times in seven weeks in spring 2020, costing taxpayers an estimated $6.8 million to hold the new March election.

“I would tell them this is a colossally bad idea,” Pierce County Clerk Jamie Feuerhelm said in an interview inside his county’s century-old courthouse in Ellsworth. “Unless they want to volunteer their time and their money to help us do it, it’s just an enormous burden. And not just to my office, but to the taxpayers of Pierce County and every other county in Wisconsin.”

Feuerhelm said the extra election would cost his rural county between $20,000 and $25,000 to print and mail new ballots, program voting machines, and store the additional voting data. In addition, he said he feared voters could be confused about the new election schedule.

St. Croix County Clerk Cindy Campbell questioned how municipal clerks would administer three elections in what she described as “a very tight time frame” – especially if there’s a recount, she said. Campbell and Feuerhelm are among 63 of Wisconsin’s 72 county clerks who signed a letter opposing the change, said Dane County Clerk Scott McDonnell. 

The proposal is among a series of changes sought by GOP lawmakers before Republican Gov. Scott Walker leaves office. Evers defeated Walker by 1.2 percentage points in the November election.

Republicans are also seeking to limit in-person early voting to a two-week window before the election. Right now, there is no limit to the time period when clerks can hold early voting. No changes are proposed for absentee voting by mail.

GOP lawmakers, who will again dominate the state Legislature next year, are proposing to take some powers from Evers and incoming Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul. For example, the Legislature – and not Evers – would have to approve before Kaul withdraws Wisconsin from a lawsuit over the Affordable Care Act.

Protesters descended on the state Capitol eight years ago after Walker took office, when he and GOP lawmakers ended many collective bargaining rights for most public workers. As he prepares to leave office in a month, protesters returned Monday to shout “shame!” and “respect our votes” at lawmakers ahead of a public hearing on the legislation.

The Legislature’s powerful budget committee is scheduled to vote Monday evening on the bill. Assembly leaders plan to hold a vote on Tuesday afternoon.

Yet, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald did not commit to advancing one of the most controversial elements of the bill, the presidential primary date change, when the bill reaches his chamber.

Critics say the date change is purely political, but top Republicans said the nonpartisan races for state Supreme Court and local offices should be separate from the partisan presidential primary. Until 2012, they were held separately, said Assembly Speaker Robin Vos.

“When you stand back and say to somebody running for the county board, the school board, or city council, do you want to talk about the issues that are important in your city or, when you’re going door to door, have people say, ‘Are you a Republican or a Democrat?’ Well then, what’s the point of having nonpartisan offices?” Vos said on conservative talk radio host Dan O’Donnell’s show on WISN/1130AM in Milwaukee.