- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 12, 2014

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - With just one vote to spare, Republicans who control the state Senate on Wednesday passed a series of hotly contested election law changes, including disallowing casting early votes on the weekends or past 7 p.m. in the two weeks leading up to an election.

All 15 Democrats were joined by Republican Sen. Dale Schultz, who is not seeking re-election, in voting against the bills. All six proposals, which also included measures to delay asbestos lawsuits and limit liability for parents of teen drivers, passed 17-16.

Democrats, who used a procedural move Tuesday to delay the final votes until Wednesday morning, renewed their arguments that Republicans were trying to make it more difficult for people to vote, particularly minorities in Milwaukee and Madison.

“It screams of backward-thinking mentality, all the way back to Jim Crow and you should be ashamed,” said Democratic Sen. Lena Taylor, of Milwaukee, who is black. Jim Crow laws dating back to the 19th century mandated segregation in some U.S. states.

Taylor was speaking against a bill that would bar early voting on the weekend and limit it to no more than 45 hours in each of the two weeks prior to an election between the hours of 8 a.m. and 7 p.m.

Republican backers, who chose not to speak Wednesday, said during Tuesday’s debate that the bill was about fairness, arguing that rural areas don’t have the money or ability that larger cities do to hold extended in-person absentee hours.

The Legislature should be working to expand voting opportunities, not reduce options, Democratic opponents argued. Republicans were clearly trying to dampen Democratic turnout, opponents to the bill said.

In 2012, when President Barack Obama carried Wisconsin by nearly 7 percentage 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.

Another bill passed would allow election observers to stand as close as three feet to people registering to vote or picking up their ballot. Under current law, the chief inspector or municipal clerk designates areas for election observers to stand.

Democrats argued that would lead to arguments among poll watchers and election workers, which could escalate to having to call police to sort it out. The bill, which previously passed the Assembly, now heads to Gov. Scott Walker.

A third elections-related bill passed would allow poll workers to come from anywhere in the county where they live, rather than just from their municipality or ward. Democrats said that would result in more partisan poll workers coming in to work in Democratic areas. Republican supporters said it would give polls in need of workers more options to find adequate staff.

Other bills passed by the Senate would:

- Slow asbestos-exposure lawsuits that are frequently brought by veterans who were exposed during their time in the military. The bill would require plaintiffs to reveal how many businesses their attorneys plan to go after. Trials could not start until six months after that disclosure.

Republican supporters say such a move would prevent lawyers from hiding multiple claims in hopes of maximizing awards. But opponents said the bill is designed to slow cases down in the hopes plaintiffs will die and protect corporations from making payouts.

- Allow lobbyists to start making personal campaign donations the day candidates can circulate petitions for office, which is April 15. Under current law they can’t make any donations until June 1. However, state law would continue to bar lobbyists from giving campaign donations to members of the Legislature while it is still in session.

- Set a new liability limit of $300,000 for parents of drivers under age 18 who get in an accident. Currently, children under 18 need a parent or other adult sponsor to sign and verify their driver’s license application but there is no limit on liability.

All of the bills, other than the one covering poll observers, now head to the Assembly which is expected to vote on them next week.

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