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With more than 2.6 million votes cast, Wisconsin saw a record-breaking number of voters in the 2018 midterm election, which resulted in narrow victories for now-Gov. Tony Evers and Attorney General Josh Kaul, both Democrats.
In December 2018, during the lame-duck session, a set of GOP-backed bills aimed at curtailing some powers of the new administration passed and were signed by outgoing Gov. Scott Walker.
Senate Bills 883, 884 and 886 affected many powers, including the governor’s ability to make changes to health care and public benefits programs.
State Rep. Jim Ott, R-Mequon, is emphatic that at least one thing was not done.
In an email to constituents sent out in December, Ott headlined one bullet point: "Early voting was not eliminated."
The item noted that in past elections, large cities, including Milwaukee, Madison and Green Bay, offered early voting for up to six weeks before Election Day -- far longer than many smaller municipalities.
It then claims SB 884 levels the playing field, since "municipalities are now required to have two or more polling locations opened 24-hours a day, two weeks before any election."
Is Ott right, that the playing field is now leveled?
In a word, no.
SB 884 and the election hours
According to the Wisconsin Elections Commission, individual villages, towns and cities are responsible for setting the dates and hours of in-person absentee voting for their municipalities.
They still have this discretion, though the GOP action cut back the duration of early voting.
Under the changes, if early voting is offered, it could not begin sooner than 14 days, or two weeks, before an election.
Voters can cast their ballot no later than the Sunday prior to Election Day, so that provides 13 days of potential early voting, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.
The hours of voting would still be decided by local governments. So, counter to what Ott’s email claimed, that doesn’t necessarily mean polling places will be operating 24 hours a day -- or even that a given municipality will offer early voting at all.
Indeed, there could still be wide discrepancies within that window, so the playing field is not leveled at all.
When asked about the claim, Ginger Mueller from Ott’s office said the wrong word was inadvertently used.
"That should have read ‘…municipalities are allowed to have….’" she wrote in an email. "Thank you for bringing it our attention."
One Wisconsin Institute v. Thomsen
The subject of election hours has long been a hot one in Madison.
In 2016, liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Institute and Citizen Action of Wisconsin Education Fund filed a lawsuit over the GOP-passed state voter ID law.
The case resulted in six separate legislative actions being deemed unconstitutional by U.S. District Judge James Peterson -- including limiting the time period for in-person early voting except the Monday before Election Day.
At the time, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported Peterson called limits on early voting part of a Republican effort to stifle votes for partisan gain and dismissed GOP claims of wanting uniform rules for both rural and urban communities.
Peterson also noted that limiting early voting would disadvantage minority voters.
The two plaintiffs in the original suit filed a memorandum against the limits of early voting presented in SB 884, requesting the state enforce the previous injunction set out by Peterson.
The state denied the request, saying it lacked jurisdiction to enforce anything while the case is pending on appeal.
In an email to constituents, Ott said a bill passed by Republicans levels the field for early-voting because "municipalities are now required to have two or more polling locations opened 24-hours a day, two weeks before any election."
But, that’s not what the bill said.
It set a two-week maximum time period for early voting. It did not require every municipality to offer it for that whole window. Likewise, it did not specify they would be open 24 hours a day.
Those determinations will still be made at the local level, so inconsistencies are likely to remain.
We rate Ott’s claim False.
Newsletter, Jim Ott
Wisconsin Elections Commission, Absentee voting laws
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Lawsuit looms over proposed limit to early voting in Wisconsin, Dec. 1, 2018
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Lame-duck limits on early voting - and the arguments for them - resemble ones already rejected by a judge, Dec. 12, 2018
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Appeals court yet to rule on Wisconsin voter ID and other election laws after 16 months, May 31, 2018
Summary of 2017 Senate Bill 883, 884, 886 as presented to the Wisconsin Legislature by the Legislative Fiscal Bureau
Court documents from One Wisconsin Institute, Inc. v. Thomsen memorandum and state response
Phone call with Green Bay City Clerk
E-mail interview with Wisconsin Elections Commission communications
Washington Post, Wisconsin Gov. Walker signs lame-duck legislation to weaken incoming Democratic governor, attorney general, Dec. 14, 2018
The Hill, Eric Holder-backed group sues Wisconsin over early-voting limits, Dec. 17, 2018
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