By Gretchen Schuldt
A bill adopted by the state Senate and pending in the Assembly contains some vague language about reporting election irregularities that some organizations are concerned about.
Another bill would allow people in prison or jail to choose up to three people to be notified in case of lockdowns or other disciplinary measures that would affect a particular inmate's ability to visit or communicate.
More information about each below. A chart showing the sponsors of each bill is at the bottom of this post.
Senate Bill 291/Assembly Bill 300 – Increasing penalties for battery to an election worker; whistleblower protections
Concerns about the vagueness of whistleblower protection language in this bill, which also would increase penalties for battery to election officials, have prompted some organizations to express concerns about the measure and call for clearer language.
Other organizations, however, backed the measure, which was adopted by the Senate without a roll call. It is pending in the Assembly.
That battery section of the legislation would increase the penalty for simple battery to an election worker from a misdemeanor to a felony and would increase the maximum penalty from nine months behind bars and a $10,000 fine to 3½ years of incarceration and a $10,000 fine.
“Since 2020, we have witnessed shocking instances of violent behaviors and intimidation directed towards election officials in Milwaukee County, in Wisconsin, and throughout the nation,” Milwaukee County Clerk George Christenson said in testimony submitted to the Assembly Campaigns and Elections Committee. “These threats show up by way of emails, voicemails, and personal verbal and physical threats against the dedicated public servants who stand at the front door of our democracy.”
The bill, he said, “demonstrates the serious nature of these unacceptable behaviors and makes it clear that such attacks on election officials in Wisconsin will not be tolerated.”
Brown County Clerk Patrick Moynihan Jr. also wrote in support of the bill, including the whistleblower language.
“The recognition and importance of protecting and strengthening our election official’s person and self-confidence is paramount,” he said. “So too, the Whistleblower provisions as detailed within the bill provide reasonable assurances against any potential unlawful retribution.”
That language says that no election worker may be disciplined or retaliated against because the worker “lawfully reported, or is believed to have reported, witnessing what the clerk or election official reasonably believed to be election fraud or irregularities.”
Rock County Clerk Lisa Tollefson was generally supportive of the bill, but added in written testimony, “The only piece of the bill that concerns me is in the Whistleblower section. Each time I read the bill I have a different take on it. Some clarification in this section of the bill may be needed."
She asked, "Can the reporting of an election irregularity act as a shield to protect an election official from something else that would cause them to be disciplined or release(d)…from employment?" and "What is lawfully reported?"
The ACLU of Wisconsin, in registering against the bill, said the organization has concerns with the bill, “as the process for ‘lawfully reporting’ is not outlined, and the terms ‘reasonable belief’ and ‘irregularities’ are not defined.”
All Voting is Local Action, also registered against the bill, said “Spoke with Governor's Office, RE: Concerns with the Whistle Blower section, no structure for reporting.”
And Edgar Lin, Protect Democracy’s Wisconsin policy advocate and counsel (and also a WJI Board member), identified three specific areas that need strengthening.
First, he said in testimony, there should be a process for “lawfully reporting.” To whom does a bad act get reported and who reviews the allegation? What happens if a false “bad act” is reported? When must these acts be reported? “Without a clear process, a whistleblower event – regardless of merit – could descend into chaotic litigation, which could further undermine the confidence in our election system,” he said.
Second, he said, “an election worker’s 'reasonable belief' about fraud or irregularities should be defined. Is it a reasonable election worker standard? A reasonable person standard? Or simply that election worker’s own subjective belief?”
Finally, he said, “ ‘irregularities’ should be defined. The current language states that a person could lawfully report “election fraud” or “irregularities.’ ” While election fraud is defined in state law, “ ‘Irregularities’ is not defined,” he said. “Instead of ‘irregularities’ – a vague and broad term that could be widely interpreted depending on perspective – the bad act should be grounded by existing laws, rules, regulation, and/or guidance,” he wrote.
The Wisconsin Counties Association, the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, and the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, Inc. registered in support of the bill. Those organizations did not indicate why they supported the bill.
Senate Bill 904 – Public information on lockdowns
The public would have access to information about prison and jail lockdowns in facilities around the state, under a Democratic bill introduced in the state Legislature this week.
The bill would require the Department of Corrections (DOC) to publish on its website certain information about each prison and county jail in the state. That information would include whether there is any restriction in place impacting the ability of an inmate or a group of inmates to participate in visitation or communication and, if there is such a restriction, a statement giving the reason for it, how long the restriction has been in place, the number of inmates in solitary confinement, and the total number of inmates held in the facility.
The bill also would require DOC and sheriffs to establish a notification system to inform certain individuals within 24 hours of an inmate's being put under any type of restriction limiting availability for visitation periods or other communication. Each inmate would be allowed to select up to three people to receive the information.
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