Walker open to bill limiting early voting hours

The Wisconsin state Capitol in Madison is seen, Jan. 14, 2014.
The Wisconsin state Capitol in Madison is seen, Jan. 14, 2014.

MADISON (AP) – Gov. Scott Walker signaled Tuesday that he was open to signing a bill that would limit early voting, including disallowing it on weekends in the two weeks leading up to an election.

The state Senate was expected to pass the bill 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.

Senators were preparing to work into the night voting on more than 50 bills, including more than a dozen that would make substantive and technical changes to election law, as part of an effort to end this year’s session within the next couple weeks.

When asked about the early voting bill following a 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.

Democrats, along with a coalition of community, voter rights and religious groups that work to expand access to the polls, particularly for minorities, oppose the bill. But Democrats don’t have enough votes in the Senate to stop it.

“Politicians should be focused on freedom and justice, not decreasing the number of people who can vote,” Mike Wilder, co-chair of the African American Roundtable in Milwaukee, said during a Monday news conference opposing the bills.

In 2011, the Republican-controlled Legislature limited early voting hours from three weeks with three weekends to two weeks with one weekend. This year’s 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.

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.

Republicans who support the bill that would do away with the night time and weekend voting hours say 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.

But 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.

Other election-related bills the Senate is scheduled to take up on Tuesday include proposals to:

- Allow lobbyists to start giving donations to candidates for office, including members of the Legislature, 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.

- 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.

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Associated Press writer Todd Richmond contributed to this report.

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