In quest to change voting rules, Republicans push ballot measures in key battleground states

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Republican lawmakers and activists in several presidential battlegrounds are pushing ballot measures to change how elections are run in their states. Critics say those efforts, if successful, could make it harder to administer voting in places that could decide key political contests.

Next week, Wisconsin voters will decide whether to alter the state’s constitution and ban any private money in elections, one of two GOP-backed measures on Tuesday’s ballot focused on election administration. In Nevada, meanwhile, a GOP-aligned group is collecting signatures in the hopes of establishing new voter ID requirements in the Silver State.

And in Arizona, a so-called ballot referral moving through the Republican-controlled Legislature would upend the state’s widely used, no-excuse vote-by-mail system. The measure, which recently cleared a key Senate committee, also would effectively sideline the use of so-called vote centers in the state’s largest counties.

Opponents say that will set off a costly scramble to find additional polling places and workers.

In Wisconsin and Arizona, Republican lawmakers, who have seen Democratic governors veto their election proposals, are leading the efforts to go the ballot measure route and avoid veto pens. Constitutional amendments in Wisconsin and ballot referenda in Arizona are not subject to the approval of governors in those states.

“This is the national conservative strategy now: If you can’t get it done through the legislative process, put in on the ballot,” said Jay Heck, who runs Common Cause in Wisconsin and opposes the ballot measures that go before voters Tuesday.

Arizona and Wisconsin both flipped from Donald Trump to Joe Biden in 2020 and have seen election conspiracy theories flourish as the former president and his allies promote false claims that fraud contributed to his loss of the White House that year.

Republican legislators and conservative groups backing the efforts say the measures are aimed at restoring voter confidence battered in the years since the last presidential election.

“People need to trust that elections are conducted fairly and impartially,” state Sen. Eric Wimberger, a Republican sponsor of the referendum targeting private election funding, said on social media. “Wisconsin’s status as a swing state makes election integrity measures important locally, nationally and internationally.”

If approved, the Wisconsin measures would be in effect for this year’s elections.

Private funding targeted

In Wisconsin, GOP lawmakers have focused on the more than $10 million that election officials in the state received in 2020 as part of a grant from the Center for Tech and Civic Life to help agencies and voters safely navigate the Covid-19 pandemic that year. Republicans have expressed suspicion about the source of that funding: Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, gave $350 million to the nonprofit.

Zuckerberg has said it was a one-time investment to help during the extraordinary circumstances surrounding the pandemic, and grant administrators have noted that any community that applied for the money received it. But critics argue it helped Democratic turnout that year and unfairly shaped the election outcome.

Twenty-seven states have since banned, limited or otherwise regulated private donations for elections, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. An effort to do so in Wisconsin, however, was vetoed by the state’s Democratic governor, Tony Evers, who has blocked election changes passed by the Republican-controlled legislature.

Will Flanders – research director at the conservative Wisconsin Institute of Law and Liberty, one of the groups backing next week’s ballot measures – said the failure to ban the money through the normal legislative process in the Badger State sets a “dangerous precedent.”

Another private funder “who’s not going to give any lip service whatsoever to being fair-minded, could, in fact, only give election administration funding to the most left-leaning or the most right-leaning areas” if the state doesn’t change the law, he said.

A second proposed amendment ballot in Wisconsin could enshrine in the state’s constitution that “only election officials designated by law may perform tasks in the conduct of primaries, elections and referendums.”

Republicans have said they want to ensure that private consultants cannot engage in election administration.

Opponents argue that the measures could have unintended consequences, such as potentially barring local clerks from accepting donated supplies or the use of a privately owned building as a polling place. In addition, they note, the ballot questions make no guarantee of increased government funding to help run elections if private sources are prohibited.

“All of us who are tangentially involved with our elections are a little concerned,” said Debra Cronmiller, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin. “The language is incredibly vague. If passed, we suspect these questions will end up getting litigated in court.”

Arizona ballot measure

In Arizona, Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs has vetoed a raft of legislation – ranging from efforts to get rid of red-light cameras to prohibiting ranked-choice voting in the state’s elections. (The Phoenix New Times has dubbed her the “Veto Queen,” after tallying a record 143 vetoes in 2023, during Hobbs’ first year in office.)

Now, a slew of ballot referrals aimed at circumventing her veto authority are pending in the state Legislature.

They include a sweeping election measure that would reduce the number of days of early, in-person voting and dramatically change the state’s popular vote-by-mail system, by limiting those who can use it without an excuse. Instead of allowing most Arizonans to vote by mail, as is currently the practice, the proposal passed by a Senate elections committee earlier this month would limit it to certain categories of voters, including those 65 and older, people who are disabled and those serving overseas in the military.

In Maricopa County – the state’s most populous county and home to Phoenix – more than 80% of voters cast ballots early, in person or by mail, in the November 2022 election, county officials say.

The measure also would require election officials in large counties to establish polling places for every 1,000 voters – upending the vote center model used widely. Residents are currently able to cast ballots at any vote center within the county.

If successful, Maricopa County “not only would … need to find 2,500 precinct voting locations but find the funding to staff all those locations as well,” a spokesperson for the county said in an email to CNN.

Alex Gulotta, who runs the Arizona chapter of the voting rights group All Voting is Local, said vote centers offer residents flexibility. “People want to vote when and where it’s convenient for them,” he said.

“The school near their house might be the place that’s convenient for them, but it might not be,” he said. “Maybe when they are driving across town and they see a sign that says, ‘Vote here’ and there’s no line, and they pull over and vote. People are used to doing that.”

Arizona state Sen. Wendy Rogers, a Republican who oversees the chamber’s elections committee and crafted parts of the proposal, did not respond to CNN’s inquiries. At a committee meeting earlier this month, she rejected objections about costs and logistics of sidelining vote centers.

Rogers said moving back to smaller polling places would foster voter engagement.

“I would submit to you that precinct voting allows you to vote more close to home than a voting center,” she said during debate. And she said it would make it easier to hand count ballots at the precinct level – an approach sought by conservative activists in Arizona, where distrust of ballot-tabulating machines has mushroomed.

In neighboring Nevada, meanwhile, a political action committee affiliated with a former official in the Clark County Republican Party is gathering signatures in an effort to get voters to change the state’s constitution and require identification to vote.

While Nevada residents need identification to register to vote, they are not required to show ID when they cast their ballots.

A Nevada judge recently rejected an effort to toss out the initiative. Repair the Vote, the group pushing the measure, has until late June to collect more than 100,000 signatures to qualify for the ballot.

Wisconsin voters to decide more ballot measures

Back in Wisconsin, voters will decide on more ballot measures later this year, including one in November that says only US citizens who are 18 years or older can vote – an effort to guarantee that noncitizens are barred from participating in state and local elections.

Federal law requires US citizenship to vote in congressional and presidential elections, and state constitutions – including Wisconsin’s – do not explicitly provide for noncitizen voting.

But lawmakers in a growing number of jurisdictions have taken steps to prevent noncitizen voting, particularly after New York City enacted a high-profile law allowing noncitizens to vote in local elections. (A New York state judge struck down the law in 2022, and an appellate court this year affirmed the ban. The New York City Council has filed notice that it will appeal to the state’s highest court.)

Some voting rights groups say noncitizen voting is not a widespread concern, and they warn that efforts around the country to clamp down on it by, for instance, removing people from voter rolls who once declared they were noncitizens on a jury duty form risk using outdated information to disenfranchise those who have since become naturalized US citizens.

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