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Wisconsin Elections Commission pushes back against 'insane' GOP data request

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Several members of the state’s bipartisan elections commission pushed back Tuesday against a massive request from half a dozen GOP lawmakers seeking election data dating back two decades — a request one Democratic member of the agency called “insane.”

The Wisconsin Elections Commission did not outright deny the request, made last month by Rep. Janel Brandtjen, R-Menomonee Falls, chairperson of the Assembly Committee on Campaigns and Elections, and five other Republican legislators, but instructed staff to give a full explanation to the lawmakers on the broad, expensive and time-consuming nature of the request.

“We have an absolutely insane request from the Legislature,” said Ann Jacobs, the commission’s Democratic chair. “It’s a ridiculous request and we need to be able to let them tell us what they actually want because we can’t give them what they’re asking for.”

A small percentage of voters and witnesses made mistakes on their absentee ballot certificates in 2020. Here are some examples of the kinds of errors that were either allowed or corrected by the clerk in order to permit the ballot to be counted.

Commission administrator Meagan Wolfe said the agency often waives fees associated with public records requests, especially those made by the Legislature, but said data requests, like the one made by Brandtjen, are an entirely different issue.

Commission officials said the agency has received a crush of public records requests in recent months, some of which are incredibly broad, including a request made last month by Brandtjen seeking an array of election-related documents including voter identification data, voter rolls and procurement and technology agreements dating back 20 years.

“This was the broadest records request I’ve ever seen or heard of,” Republican commissioner Dean Knudson said.

Wolfe said the committee’s requests — for records of any changes to the status of any voter, active or inactive, in the statewide database — would include “hundreds of millions if not billions of data points” and require coordination with the Legislature to facilitate a secure transfer of information.

Wolfe estimated the request will take hundreds of staff hours and could cost “upwards of $100,000.” What’s more, Wolfe estimated such a request would require the agency to dedicate all of its servers to procuring the data for as long as a week, which would essentially prevent the agency from performing other tasks leading up to the spring primary and election.

“We want to be transparent, most certainly,” Wolfe said. “But I think we also need to ... make sure we’re doing so in a way that allows the agency to sustain its work.”

The commission’s administrative code also requires the agency to charge for such a custom data request and some of the requested information, such as dates of birth, social security numbers and driver’s license information, is protected under state and federal law and cannot be released.

Wolfe said the commission has already hired a new staff attorney to help manage the bevy of incoming requests.

Democratic commissioner Mark Thomsen last week described Republican efforts as an attempt to “overwhelm, undermine and ultimately destroy the nonpartisan nature of elections” in Wisconsin as state and local officials try to prepare for the February spring primary and April spring election.

“We cannot let requests undermine our ability to oversee the 2022 elections,” he said Tuesday.

The commission also unanimously voted to eliminate language in the agency’s policy that limits the hourly cost for responding to a public records request to between $21.11 and $30, based on the lowest paid staffer capable of performing the records search.

The policy change would not be retroactive so any requests already on file wouldn’t fall under the new cost guidelines.

Emergency rules

The Wisconsin Elections Commission plans to meet on Jan. 28 to formally discuss a demand Monday from the Legislature’s GOP-controlled rules committee that the agency create rules for absentee ballot drop boxes and to clarify what missing information clerks can fill in on absentee ballot envelopes.

In preparation for the meeting, Thomsen asked that staff compile information on whether the Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules can force the agency to create the emergency rules in the first place. The Republican-led Legislature passed bills last year that would have enforced rules on ballot drop boxes and what errors local clerks can correct on absentee ballot envelopes, but the proposals were vetoed by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.

“It seems to me that if you can’t pass it as a law you certainly can’t force a commission to adopt the law,” Thomsen said.

Republican commissioner Robert Spindell pushed back on what he called a “tortured and twisted” legal argument from Thomsen. Spindell suggested the commission take up the committee’s demand and begin drafting emergency rules.

Thomsen fired back, pointing out that Spindell joined his fellow commissioners in a unanimous vote last month to begin the lengthy process of sketching out proposed rules for what missing information clerks can fill in on absentee ballot envelopes and for rules regulating the use of ballot drop boxes based on current guidance.

“Bob, get a backbone,” Thomsen said. “Get a backbone and finally stick up for a vote you took.”

State statutes do not address the use of ballot drop boxes, although the commission issued guidance in early 2020 to allow election clerks to make use of them. The boxes were widely used in the state that year as an alternative for voters worried that, with the crush of absentee ballots during the COVID-19 pandemic and potential delays in mail delivery, their ballots might not make it back before Election Day.

The commission also approved guidance in 2016 allowing clerks to correct common errors on absentee ballot envelopes, such as missing ZIP codes or address information entered on the wrong line.

Republicans have claimed without evidence that both policies can lead to voter fraud. The committee voted 6-4 along party lines to require the commission to publish the guidance as emergency rules by Feb. 9 or withdraw the guidance. Once in rule form, the committee can vote to eliminate the policies.

Flagging movers

The commission also voted Tuesday to direct staff to continue sending quarterly mailers to voters as part of the nonprofit Electronic Registration Information Center, or ERIC, which flags potential movers.

The commission voted last summer to send postcards to potential movers on a quarterly basis informing the voters that data from the Division of Motor Vehicles or U.S. Postal Service indicates they may have moved, and that their voter registration may be deactivated if they don’t affirm their current address or register at a new one.

While all six members of the commission agreed that the quarterly process has been successful, Spindell raised concern that the motion did not include a sunset date or requirement that the commission reconvene on the matter at a future date.

“I just hate to have items that we vote on that are the policy forever,” Spindell said. “And that’s basically what I think is one of the problems we have with the Wisconsin Elections Commission — something that was done by somebody ... and that’s the precedent and that continues.”

Amendments offered by Republican appointees on the commission to require the commission to review ERIC movers procedures on an annual basis, as well as another proposed by commissioner Dean Knudson to formally promulgate rules on the movers process, failed along 3-3 party-line votes.

Ultimately, the commission voted 5-1, with Spindell opposed, to approve the quarterly mailers, with the stipulation that the matter can be brought back before the commission if requested by two commissioners.

Email addresses

The commission unanimously approved the launch of a grant program to assist local election clerks with transitioning to a secured .gov email domain for official communications. The commission allocated up to $300,000 to the effort and individual entities wishing to shift to a secure email can receive up to $600.

Only 189 of the state’s more than 1,800 towns, villages and municipalities and 30 out of 72 counties currently use trusted domain emails, according to the commission.

Wolfe said the use of secured email addresses is not currently required for election officials, but it could be in the near future. The hope is that providing grants helps get more communities on board.

“While it’s not a requirement now I think it’s something that we need to work toward as it may be a requirement in the future,” Wolfe said.

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