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by Henry Redman, Wisconsin Examiner
May 2, 2023

This story also appeared in Wisconsin Examiner

A pair of campaign finance bills with bipartisan support were introduced in the Wisconsin Legislature last week, aiming to prevent officials convicted of violating election rules from accessing their campaign finance accounts and assisting local governments with the cost of holding a special election. 

Voting day
Voters make their way into the polling place at Fratt School, 3501 Kinzie Ave., Racine, on Spring Election Day 2023. Poll workers reported steady voter traffic throughout the morning. – Credit: Paul Holley

The bills steer clear of many of the most controversial election proposals that have been made over the past few years, including abolishing the Wisconsin Elections Commission. Instead, the bills aim to make administrative improvements of the state’s election system, according to a co-sponsorship memo distributed to lawmakers. 

“Free and fair elections are the bedrock of representative government,” the memo states. “Our hope is to offer some rational solutions we can all agree will improve our election process and empower voters in our state. We plan to introduce an election reform package this week and next week. These bills are not intended to involve partisan politics, but rather to ensure that our elections are the best we can make them.” 

Bipartisan finance campaign roll call

Included as authors on the bills are Democratic lawmakers including Sen. Mark Spreitzer (D-Beloit), who has served on both the Senate and Assembly elections committees, Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) and Rep. Sylvia Ortiz-Velez (D-Milwaukee). The Republican authors include Rep. Shae Sortwell (R-Two Rivers) and Sens. Andre Jacque (R-DePere) and Jesse James (R-Altoona). 

Voting day
This mini-US flag decorates a car on Election Day. – Credit: Paul Holley

One of the bills closes a hole in state law that allows political candidates to remain in control of campaign finance accounts after being convicted of campaign finance violations. Under current law, candidates convicted of certain campaign finance or election fraud charges are no longer eligible to hold office but can remain in control of the money they raised while running. 

How the proposed bills would work

The proposed bill would require the judge who found a candidate guilty to dissolve the campaign finance account and appoint a new treasurer to return the money to donors. 

Another proposal would allow the Wisconsin Elections Commission to reimburse municipal governments for the cost of holding a special election. Under current law, local governments are on the hook for the costs of special elections, which can happen without warning and strain local budgets — which typically just include the costs of that year’s planned elections. 

For one Assembly district special election, according to the co-sponsorship memo, municipal governments can be required to pay more than $100,000. 

“Special elections occur with very little control, and municipalities have to shoulder nearly all of the costs incurred,” the memo states. “With little warning, these unexpected elections can have substantial fiscal impacts on local governments that already have limited budgets.” 

Municipalities would be reimbursed for special elections

If passed, the bill would allow the WEC to reimburse municipalities for the cost of a special election for “state offices,” which includes governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, state treasurer, attorney general, state superintendent of public instruction, justice of the Supreme Court, court of appeals judge, circuit court judge, state senator, state representative to the Assembly, and district attorney. 

The bill also only allows for certain costs related to the election to be reimbursed, including rental of polling places, wages for poll workers, publication and printing costs and data entry costs.

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