Elections Commission: Moving 2020 Wisconsin presidential primary ‘extraordinarily difficult’

Commission to submit written testimony on bill

Officials with the Wisconsin Elections Commission declined to take an official position for or against a piece of legislation that would move the state’s 2020 presidential primary to March, but is warning lawmakers in written testimony that moving the date would be “extraordinarily difficult.”

A sweeping package of GOP lame-duck legislation up for votes Tuesday includes a plan to move the primary from April to March. The move is designed to ensure that conservative state Supreme Court Justice Dan Kelly doesn’t face a Democratic wave when he comes up for re-election in April. State elections workers would have to run three elections in three months.

Commission staff handed the panel a memo Monday, concluding the switch could cost at least $7 million and create a logistical nightmare for local clerks.

“The clerks strongly oppose this change of election dates to March,” Dane County Clerk Scott McDonell told the Elections Commission Monday. “Obviously, we consider it a waste of money and resources, but more fundamentally we don’t think we can do it.”

McDonell explained that an additional election would create overlapping deadlines for clerks, and could result in voters having two absentee ballots at once. He also raised issues of whether there would be enough poll workers to staff polling locations for three separate elections in three months and also said if a recount was requested, that either a recount or the subsequent election could not be held.

“I’m more concerned that the integrity of our election system, people’s belief in our system would be compromised, McDonell said.

The commission unanimously adopted a motion Monday to send written testimony to legislators saying the move would create multiple conflicts, be “extraordinarily difficult” and may not be feasible. The testimony goes on to state the commission is concerned about costs and complains that the legislation provides no additional funding.

Commissioner Mark Thomsen said he felt the body should have officially weighed in on the bills in a formal way.

“We have an opportunity and I think a responsibility to weigh in on how to run good elections,” Thomsen said. “To not respond to the clerks that are saying ‘This is just not feasible’ I think would be punting on our administrative obligations.”

Other commissioners disagreed with that notion, and said the commission should testify “for information only” while detailing the challenges.

“I still do not believe we should take policy positions,” said Commissioner Jodi Jensen. “I think it compromises our ability to operate as an independent expert agency the legislature is going to look to for unbiased expertise.”

A commission memo estimates a third election would cost between $6.4 million and $6.8 million. That estimate doesn’t include all local costs, training costs and software update costs.

The memo warns of plenty of logistical hurdles, including administrating absentee ballots for two elections simultaneously and short deadlines for postelection tasks while prepping for the next contest.

Democratic lawmakers are calling the lame duck session a “power grab.”

Democratic state Sen. Jon Erpenbach said Republicans are upset they lost every statewide race in November. Erpenbach said, “They lost and they’re throwing a fit.”

.@SpeakerVos, @SenFitzgerald, @rep89 and @SenDarling are speaking to reporters about lame-duck session ahead of JFC public hearing. #news3 pic.twitter.com/OB07lXpMOS

— Rose Schmidt (@RoseSchmidtTV) December 3, 2018

Republicans, in a news conference Monday said they were proposing the 2020 primary move as well as a number of other bills to limit the power of the governor-elect and attorney general-elect to ensure the two Democrats don’t “work around the legislature.”

The Republican-controlled Budget Committee planned to vote on the bills after a hearing Monday, setting up votes in the state Senate and Assembly as soon as Tuesday.

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