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Wisconsin to Vote on Proposed Amendments That Could Make Running Elections Harder 

If approved, the changes could leave election administration underfunded and understaffed. 

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Update: Wisconsin voters approved the two proposed constitutional amendments.

Wisconsin’s primary is tomorrow, and while Joe Biden and Donald Trump have clinched the presidential nominations, other high-stakes issues are on the state’s ballot.

Voters there must decide whether to approve two proposed constitutional amendments that could have a huge effect on this fall’s election and beyond. The proposals both seek to regulate election administration. A “yes” vote on the first measure would prohibit Wisconsin governments, including cities and counties, from using private donations to conduct any elections. A “yes” vote on the second amendment would require that “only election officials designated by law may perform tasks in the conduct” of elections.

Proponents of the initiatives and the legislators who supported them say both are necessary to protect election administration from partisanship and outside interference. Opponents say they could leave municipalities without access to the resources necessary to administer elections, as well as prevent election officials from relying on outside experts, volunteers, and community members to help ensure elections run smoothly.

The potential fallout from a “yes” vote on the funding amendment, which leaves election officials with only government funding, is relatively clear. The consensus across parties is that the government fully funding election administration is ideal. But underfunding is a chronic condition of American elections, as costs for modern necessities, including cybersecurity and updated voting machines, regularly outstrip public funding. Congress recently allocated $55 million to election security grants, which was less than in previous years and well below the $400 million the Bipartisan Policy Center said is critical for a safe and secure 2024 election.

A funding shortfall could result in fewer polling places, longer voting lines, and extended wait times for election results, Wisconsin’s League of Women Voters said. (The nonpartisan voting advocacy organization is encouraging “no” votes on both proposals.)

Election experts say the effects of approving the second proposed amendment, requiring that only “election officials” perform “tasks in the conduct” of elections, are less clear. The ambiguity of words like “task” and “conduct” could lead to broad, unintended interpretations, University of Wisconsin law professor and codirector of the school’s State Democracy Research Initiative Robert Yablontold PBS.

The reality is election offices across the country rely on countless other citizens and their fellow municipal workers to conduct elections. A November 2022 study showed that nearly one-third of election offices operate with no full-time election officials. The amendment brings uncertainty to questions like who can set up the polls, whether an election official can call an outside vendor to troubleshoot an Election Day machine malfunction, and whether ballot design experts can be consulted to set up ballots in a sensible way, Yablon said. For election deniers, such confusion can offer openings to disrupt the election process with lawsuits or challenge valid election results.

Wisconsin already has a law saying “only election officials . . . may conduct an election.” That law has been interpreted to allow outside consultants, but there is no guarantee an amendment would be interpreted the same way. Critics of the proposals suggest legislation — written with input from election officials — is the better format for issues like these, pointing to the Wisconsin law and to other states that have enacted statutes rather than amendments to address funding.

The majority of Wisconsin state lawmakers have already registered their approval of the amendments, as both were legislatively referred. Wisconsin requires a majority in both houses of the state legislature to vote in favor of a proposed amendment, in two consecutive legislative sessions, before it can be sent for a public vote.

Conservative legislators started pushing for the funding amendment after private actors and organizations donated to make up the shortfall between what experts projected the administration of the 2020 election could cost — $4 billion — and the $400 million that Congress allocated as part of emergency Covid-19 pandemic measures. Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, were among those who donated, contributing a reported $420 million.

The money was distributed through grants by organizations that help educate voters and support election administration. It went to jurisdictions throughout the country in both Republican and Democratic strongholds. Wisconsin received about $10.6 million, with nearly $9 million going to the state’s five largest cities.

Though there have been no legitimate claims of partisanship or wrongdoing, so-called “Zuckerbucks” are a source of mistrust in conservative circles, and stopping such donations became a goal of Republican legislatures. More than 25 states now have prohibitions, limitations, or regulations on philanthropic funding for elections. In October 2023, Louisiana became the first state to approve a ballot initiative to ban such funding.

The second proposed amendment in Wisconsin stemmed from election support by a non-election official that critics felt had inappropriate involvement in the election. In that case, it was a single consultant from the nonprofit National Vote at Home Institute, who was hired to advise cities, including Green Bay, on running the 2020 election more smoothly and had no decision-making authority.

Despite their importance for elections in Wisconsin, these ballot initiatives are likely to be decided by a very small percentage of the population. In the 2020 primary, turnout was only 34 percent — and that was lauded as high. With no statewide races on the ballot and no competitive presidential primary, turnout Tuesday is projected to be even lower.

Erin Geiger Smith is a writer and editor at the Brennan Center for Justice.

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A project of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law