Wisconsin Elections Commission deadlocks on poll watchers

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The bipartisan Wisconsin Elections Commission couldn’t agree Monday on what to tell the state’s local election officials about how to handle poll watchers, including where they can stand as people register to vote and check in to receive their ballots.

The commission split along party lines, with all three Republicans in support of sending a notice to clerks attempting to spell out what the law allows. All three Democrats opposed it, resulting in a deadlock vote and no change.

The issue came up less than a month after the commission voted to start the lengthy process of reviewing existing rules and writing new ones for election observers. Commission chair Don Millis said that given the process won’t be done until a year or more after the Nov. 8 election, he wanted to offer clerks clarity on the existing law now.

The unprecedented recruitment efforts are the result of heightened election skepticism and have some local clerks worried about safety at the polls, especially because reports of intimidating behavior from partisan observers have popped up across the country since 2020.

Millis and other Republicans on the commission argued Monday that clerks needed some guidance to address concerns about poll watchers. Millis called his proposal “very modest.”

But Democrats objected, saying the wording Millis proposed strayed from state law and would create confusion with the election just a month away.

His initial proposal would have said that poll watchers could be within 3 feet of voters, while state law says they can’t be any closer than 3 feet and not farther than 8 feet. Millis said he had made a mistake and he did not intend to say that observers could be closer than the law permitted.

“That was poor wording on my part,” said Millis, who is a tax attorney. “I do apologize for that mistake. I’m not sure it’s going to haunt us.”

Even after changing that wording, Democrats balked at other changes they said would not comport with what the law permits.

“We can’t do this,” said Democratic commissioner Mark Thomsen, who called the proposal a “major rewrite” of the law. “It’s not consistent with the statute. What are we doing?”

Democratic commissioner Ann Jacobs said the proposal, which was not made public until the Monday meeting, should have been circulated among election clerks and others to get their feedback first.

“I think we need to be cautious about all of this,” she said.