Revised election bill OK’d

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MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Campaign donors could contribute twice as much to their favorite candidates and voters could register online under a dramatically reworked election reform bill the state Assembly’s election committee approved Monday.

In a rare compromise, Republicans and minority Democrats removed language designed to reinstate voter photo identification requirements. They also dropped provisions banning in-person absentee voting on weekends and limiting local recall elections. The elections committee approved the changes 8-1, setting up a vote in the full Assembly on Wednesday.

Democrats on the panel still called the bill troubling, but they thanked Republicans for changing it. The committee’s chairwoman, Rep. Kathleen Bernier, R-Chippewa Falls, still signaled the GOP plans to return to voter ID this fall.

“(The compromise bill) doesn’t mean we’re not going to address other things in the future,” she told the committee.

Rep. Jeff Stone introduced a bill a little more than a week ago that laid out a multitude of sweeping changes to Wisconsin election law. Chief among them was a provision allowing people to opt out of showing photo identification at the polls if they swear they’re poor.

Stone, R-Greendale, said the provision was designed to address a Dane County judge’s ruling striking down Wisconsin’s voter ID requirements last year. The judge found the mandate, which Stone wrote, impaired poor people’s right to vote because they would have to pay to obtain documents they lack to get an ID.

The bill also would have prohibited in-person absentee voting in clerk’s offices on weekends; allowed corporations to make political contributions; limited local recalls to instances in which an official has been accused of criminal or ethical wrongdoing; and extended the period of time lobbyists could contribute to candidates.

The measure generated a surge of complaints at a public hearing last week. Voter advocacy groups contended the bill would force poor people to humiliate themselves at the polls and committee member Rep. Fred Kessler, D-Milwaukee, complained that the recall restrictions would stifle voters’ voices. State elections officials urged Stone and the committee to slow down.

Stone, Kessler, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and elections committee member Rep. Terese Berceau, D-Madison, hammered out a compromise. Usually bitter political enemies, they agreed to drop the voter ID language, the absentee voting hours and the recall requirements. They retained language allowing corporate political donations and the longer lobbyist contribution window.

They inserted new language that doubled the limits for contributions to candidates for governor, the state’s constitutional offices, Supreme Court justice, state senators, Assembly representatives, circuit judges and district

attorneys.

The changes mean donors could give gubernatorial, constitutional office and justice candidates $20,000 each annually, state senators $2,000, Assembly representatives $1,000, judges and district attorneys in jurisdictions of more than 300,000 people $6,000 and judges and district attorneys in jurisdictions with fewer than 300,000 people $2,000. The limits would increase every two years to account for inflation.

They also added provisions that would allow voters to register through a state Government Accountability website up to 20 days before an election beginning in January 2015. Voters could populate a form with information from their driver’s license or state ID card. The GAB would set up a connection with the state Department of Transportation’s database to verify the information in real time; the system would reject anyone who enters information that doesn’t match.

Stone didn’t attend the hearing and didn’t immediately return a message at his Capitol office. Bernier said the GOP likely will introduce legislation setting up the opt-out clause in September. Vos said he wants to proceed cautiously on photo ID issue because the legal questions surrounding it are still unsettled.

The state Justice Department has appealed the Dane County decision, and two other lawsuits challenging the law are still pending in Milwaukee.

“I want to wait to have a full legal analysis,” said Vos, R-Burlington.

Committee members from both parties, meanwhile, praised higher contribution limits. They said the limits haven’t increased since the 1970s. They also argued higher limits will lead to more transparency in campaign finances because donations made directly to candidates must be disclosed. More donations, they contend, equals more disclosure.

Berceau also touted the online registration component, saying young people are using smartphones for more tasks and both parties are vying for their vote.

Common Cause in Wisconsin, a government watchdog group, released a statement calling the package “less onerous.” But the group still complained the bill would push more money into the political process.

Andrea Kaminski, executive director of the Wisconsin chapter of the League of Women Voters, said she was glad to see the voter ID and absentee voting limitations go.

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