- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 11, 2014

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - In-person absentee voting would no longer be allowed past 7 p.m. or on weekends in Wisconsin under a bill the Republican-controlled state Senate moved closer to passing Tuesday, despite objections from those who say it’s an unconstitutional attempt to make it more difficult for minorities in Wisconsin’s largest cities to vote.

Democrats were unified in opposition to the measure but didn’t have the votes to stop it. Instead, they used a procedural move to delay a final passage vote until Wednesday. Gov. Scott Walker also signaled Tuesday that he was open to signing the bill, which must also pass the Assembly.

The measure was among more than a dozen bills debated Tuesday that make both technical and substantive changes to Wisconsin’s election law. They were taken up on one of the Senate’s final planned days in session this year. The Assembly plans to end its work for the year next week.

Democratic senators, along with a coalition of community, voter rights and religious groups that work to expand access to the polls, accused Republicans of trying to make it more difficult for people to vote.

Limiting early voting “digs a grave for democracy,” said Democratic Sen. Bob Jauch, of Poplar.

“I’m angry as hell and so should be the citizens of the state,” Jauch said.

But Republican supporters said limiting early voting is needed because it’s not fair that large cities can offer it while voters who live in areas without the resources to hold extended hours don’t get that opportunity. And, supporters said, voters still have plenty of opportunity to vote early or by mailing in their ballot absentee.

“We’re not limiting anybody’s rights or anything,” said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend.

The bill would restrict in-person absentee voting to between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m. on weekdays in the two weeks before an election. No weekend hours would be allowed and total voting hours would be limited to no more than 45 hours per week.

It comes after the Republican-controlled Legislature in 2011 limited early voting hours from three weeks with three weekends to two weeks with one weekend.

In 2012, when President Barack Obama carried Wisconsin by nearly 7 points, the heavily Democratic cities of Madison and Milwaukee both offered extended voting hours into the night and weekends in the two weeks leading up to the election. In that election, more than 514,000 people voted absentee statewide.

Bill opponent Scot Ross, director of the liberal group One Wisconsin Now, called the proposal racist and said it was unconstitutional because it would disproportionally affect minority populations where most early voting occurs.

The Assembly passed a similar bill in November, but because the Senate version differs slightly it would have to pass the Assembly again before being sent to Walker.

When asked about the early voting bill after a Tuesday Wisconsin Bankers Association event, Walker said that it wasn’t on his radar yet but he would “take a look at it” once it clears the Legislature.

“We’ve got a whole stack of things to look at when they pass through both houses,” Walker said.

Other election-related bills the Senate debated on Tuesday include proposals to:

- Allow lobbyists to start giving donations to candidates for office starting on April 15 in election years instead of June 1. Supporters say the change is needed because partisan primaries have been moved up from September to August, but opponents say it will only increase the amount of outside money in politics. Lobbyists still couldn’t donate to candidates for the Legislature until after the session is over, even if that’s later than April 15.

- Permit election observers to stand as close as three feet away from the table where people register to vote and where they receive their ballot. Under current law, the chief inspector or municipal clerk designates areas for election observers to stand.

- Require that an equal number of poll workers as nominated by the Republican and Democratic parties serve as poll workers.


Associated Press writer Todd Richmond contributed to this report.


Follow Scott Bauer on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sbauerAP .

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