- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Wisconsin State Journal, Madison, Dec. 30

The need to rebuild trust in presidency

President-elect Joe Biden gave a victory speech after the Electoral College confirmed he will be the next president. “Now it’s time to turn the page as we’ve done throughout our history, to unite, to heal,” he said.

For that to happen, Biden must prioritize transparency and honesty with the public. Neither Congress nor the majority of Americans who are willing to give the new administration a chance to succeed will unite behind a White House that hews toward secrecy and the worst tendencies of Biden’s predecessor.

Four years ago, we urged President Donald Trump to build a rapport with the press so he could more effectively communicate with citizens and build trust. We hoped he would understand that the Founders put a free press in the First Amendment because independent news informs the public and is essential to a healthy democracy.



He didn’t. The public heard accusations of “fake news” and “enemy of the people.” Under Trump, the relationships between the press, the White House and the people have been damaged. It’s hard to trust the president when he subverts access to reliable information about his actions and his agenda.

If Biden truly hopes to unite people, his administration must work with the free press, not against it. He must keep only the secrets that are necessary, such as those in the interest of national security. Too often elected officials from presidents down to city council members choose secrecy when the truth is inconvenient or embarrassing.

Biden must answer questions reporters ask, not the ones he wanted them to ask. The president’s words and proposals will earn more public respect and support if they can withstand scrutiny.

Biden also must instruct his Cabinet and the entire executive branch that openness is a priority. Neither reporters nor ordinary Americans should have to fight or beg for information about their government. Make transparency the starting point by posting as much as possible online in useful formats that people can search easily.

Biden’s history with the press is mixed, and a new generation of political advisers see the press at best as a tool to exploit and at worst as a hindrance to maintaining pure messaging. The Obama administration, during which Biden served as vice president, did not deliver on its lofty rhetoric about transparency. It talked a big game, but it kept Americans in the dark about too many things. It even spied on Associated Press reporters and editors.

Biden must do better, and his press honeymoon is over or soon will be. Reporters will ask tough questions. They will dig into stories that might not reflect well on the administration. They will hold Biden to the same standards of truth and accountability as they did with Trump. That doesn’t make them an enemy.

How Biden responds will determine in large part whether he succeeds at undoing the harm of the past four years.

___

Journal Times, Racine, Dec. 30

Stopping in-person tax payments a bad move

One of the most important tasks that local governments are asked to do each year is to collect taxes. Without property taxes, roads cannot get fixed, schools cannot pay teachers and garbage cannot be collected.

Yet, this year due to COVID some local government entities are not opening up their doors to let people pay their local property taxes.

Yes, they have added drop boxes to help people avoid mail delivery delays. But with something as important as taxes many people rightfully want to leave with a receipt in hand so they have proof they paid, for themselves and for their income tax returns.

Also, if the escrow check is lost in the mail it’s not as easy as writing out another check. There is a lot of work involved and it likely would result in a late payment.

If tax collection was something that snuck up unexpectedly, then it could be understandable that government agencies wouldn’t have had time to come up with a plan.

But that is not the case. Back in March when coronavirus first started here clerks knew at the end of the year they would need to collect taxes. When the coronavirus continued through the summer and into the fall that obligation continued.

With tax season looming, officials should have taken a page from the election playbook and figured out innovative ways to help residents pay their taxes. They could have put in extra safeguards and arranged for call-in appointments to avoid lines. They could have added car service like as did for the election. Maybe CARES funds could have helped with any additional staffing.

But instead of being innovative, some municipalities just put up their signs saying closed for service.

That is not the right message for residents or businesses.

Government entities should do better.

___

Kenosha News, Kenosha, Dec. 28

Time to clean up Wisconsin’s election issues

Making a list, checking it twice …

No, not Santa.

It’s the state Legislature that should start to pore over some of the heated disputes over state election practices and see if they need a tune-up.

You know the ones we’re talking about - the ones that ended up with President Donald Trump calling Wisconsin’s elections a fraud and heading to court to overturn his 21,000-vote loss to President-elect Joe Biden.

Last week, Trump was still at it, ripping conservative state Supreme Court Justice Brian Hagedorn for siding with three liberal justices in denying the Trump lawsuit. Hagedorn told the plaintiffs if they were unhappy with election practices, which had been in effect for many years, they should have gone to court earlier and not after the ballots had been counted.

So, yes, it’s clean-up time.

Incoming Republican Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu took the first step last week, calling for a change in state law to allow the counting of absentee ballots before Election Day.

The Oostburg senator had called for that change last year, but it never made it out of committee. This time he’s hoping it gets support from fellow Republicans, who control the state Senate 20-12.

“As long as it’s secure, I think we could get there,” LeMahieu said.

Wisconsin is an outlier among states - it’s only one of four in the nation that forbids clerks from counting absentee ballots before the polls open at 7 a.m. on Election Day. This year, with the pandemic pushing people to come in by absentee or early ballot - close to 2 million or 60 percent of the total vote - it meant results weren’t available until 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. the next day in some counties that use centralized voting. State law forbids reporting partial results, so that meant counties like Milwaukee and Dane didn’t have their tally until early in the morning - and they came in heavily for Biden.

That surge for Biden in the middle of the night led to allegations that 100,000 votes had been fraudulently “found,” triggering the subsequent recount and court fights.

It makes sense to allow clerks to begin the counting of absentee ballots either as they come in or a few days before the election, just as long as those votes are not totaled or released until after the polls close on Election Day. So, yes, the early count needs to be secure; otherwise, it could affect turnout by dissuading voters from going to the polls because their candidate is perceived to be far behind or well ahead.

But that’s only the start of the list. The Legislature should also look at other disputed issues that triggered fights - issues like whether people doing early in-person voting should have to sign two forms to get their ballot; whether election clerks can go to parks and collect absentee ballots already mailed to voters (as they did in Madison); whether special drop boxes for absentee ballots can be used; and whether election clerks can fix an absentee ballot that doesn’t have an address for the required witness, a fix that was in some instances done by calling the witness or checking the address of that person in voting records. The law change allowing that was put in place by state Republicans, but that was then and this is now, and it became an issue in the presidential election.

The Trump campaign and conservatives argued in this state, and in others, that election practices could only be set by state Legislatures and not by state election officials. That dispute needs to be resolved, and if our election practices need to be blessed by the Legislature and the governor to make sure we have no future election donnybrooks, then do it.

Do it now in this quiet, less contentious time when issues can be considered with some cool heads. Don’t wait for the fire of the next election.

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