MADISON (WKOW) -- House Democrats approved last week the largest voting rights legislation in a generation, the question facing their colleagues in the Senate was whether they were willing to do away with filibuster in order to get the bill to President Joe Biden's desk.
The 'For the People' Act would:
- Automatically register eligible voters
- Require at least 15 days of early voting for federal elections
- Mandate states to start using independent redistricting commissions to draw congressional districts
- Provide public funding at a six-to-one match for small campaign donations (under $200) to House races
- Ban states from purging voters from their rolls due to inactivity
Rep. Glenn Grothman (R-Fond du Lac) said he worried the legislation would remove privacy from the voting process.
"What scares me is, over time, I think for partisan reasons, people want, or the Democrats want a lot more ballots filled out in which other people can watch," Grothman said, referring to absentee ballots.
Grothman said one of his biggest concerns was voter registration activists going door-to-door seeking to help voters who've requested absentee ballots fill out those ballots. There is no proof of any activists coercing people into filling out their absentee ballots on the spot.
Grothman said he was also opposed to the concept of independent redistricting commissions because there was no way to ensure those bodies would be truly nonpartisan. Wisconsin's neighbor to the southwest, Iowa, has had such a system in place for decades.
"I don't think you get independent [commissions]," Grothman said. "I mean, right now, when things wind up in court, I know the congressmen in other states, I know particularly in Pennsylvania, felt the impartial judges were not at all impartial."
Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Madison) said the changes were long overdue. With regard to redistricting, Pocan said Republicans would continue to pass bills that made voting incrementally more difficult, believing it would give them a greater chance to control state legislatures and, in turn, keep drawing congressional and legislative maps.
"Right now, we're playing whack-a-mole with states that are trying to do these draconian laws that make it harder for people to vote," Pocan said. "We should want people to be able to vote; that's the best outcome we could have."
With regard to the perhaps the biggest questions facing Democrats in half a century, Pocan said he was fully on-board with the idea of his Senate colleagues ending the filibuster, which would end the days of needing 60 votes to pass legislation.
"I don't think the 60 votes makes sense anymore, especially when you have things as dysfunctional as they were the last two years when Mitch McConnell was the head of the Senate," Pocan said.
Critics have said ending the filibuster would open the door for small majorities to push through major legislation on both sides and discourage bipartisan efforts on the most significant issues.
Securing the Capitol, reforming the police
House lawmakers went home early last week after federal authorities reported threats of right-wing militias once again attacking the Capitol. Supports of then-President Donald Trump breached the building on January 6, an assault that left five people dead.
Grothman said it was long past time for the security apparatus - armed guards and barbed wire fences - around the Capitol to come down.
"I think any normal person who's a Congressman, by 10 o'clock on January 6, knew we were safe," Grothman said. "And now they've done so much overkill."
While FBI Director Christopher Wray testified last week that the Capitol riot was an act of domestic terrorism and the threat of right-wing militia violence was "metastasizing," Grothman said he remained skeptical.
"I think for political reasons they're exaggerating this," he said.
Pocan said he believed in some ways the security response was an over-correction to the "screw-up" that left Capitol Police short-staffed and underequipped for the January 6 insurrection.
Still, Pocan believed the situation did merit greater surveillance and a full investigation into why Capitol Police were hung out to dry.
"It does kind of highlight the fact we still have to get a better grip on what happened," Pocan said. "I think that's why Nancy Pelosi has a special commission. Let's just make sure we don't have problems like this again in the future."
Before leaving D.C., the House also passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. That measure bans chokeholds and no-knock warrants while also eliminating the legal doctrine of 'qualified immunity,' which protects individual officers from civil liability.
The bill also bans racial and religious profiling while creating a national registry of officers who've committed misconduct.
Grothman said he was concerned the measures amounted to an attack on law enforcement as an institution.
"I think there were so many murders because so many politicians are trashing the police," Grothman said. "And when they trash the police, the police become timid and you have a crime rate go through the roof."
While midwestern cities like Milwaukee and Chicago did experience enormous surges in violent crime last year, including murders and carjackings, criminologists have said it's impossible to blame a single variable.
Pocan said his larger concern was finding middle ground on police reform because he felt Republicans would obstruct any proposed measures.
"Let's hope maybe [Senate Majority Leader] Chuck Schumer can charm [Senate Minority Leader] Mitch McConnell into trying to do his job but that's my bigger concern," Pocan said. "Their track record has been so pathetic over in the Senate."
Clerk-turned-Senator on state voting bills
Before she was elected to the state legislature in 2010, Sen. Kathy Bernier (R-Chippewa Falls) served as the Chippewa County Clerk from 1999 through 2011.
Bernier said she had reservations about some of the bills GOP lawmakers had been circulating in recent weeks, including measures that would make voters provide a doctor's note in order to be granted "indefinitely confined" status, which is reserved for voters for whom leaving their home to obtain a photo ID would cause undue burden.
Other measures would restrict the number of drop boxes cities and villages could place for absentee ballots and prohibit clerks from "curing" or filling in missing information on absentee ballot applications.
"There are several [bills] that give me pause," Bernier said. "Including the indefinitely confined proposal, as it sits."
Bernier said she has shared her concerns with the bills' leading Senate sponsors, Sen. Duey Stroebel (R-Cedarburg) and Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills).
Bernier said she did agree the scope of who's indefinitely confined needed to be more defined by lawmakers.
"It was intended for that population, that disabled and elderly population," Bernier said. "Not necessarily an accommodation for people who can go to the grocery store or Walmart."
Critics of the bills have said Republicans are seeking to implement as many barriers to convenient voting as possible with their motive being a reduced turnout, particularly in large cities and college towns that tend to vote Democrat.
Supporters maintain they're looking to alleviate concerns any voters might have about election integrity; there is no proof to date of any widespread voter fraud in Wisconsin or anywhere else in the country.
"I've never been a part of that conversation [about suppressing the vote] and I've been chair of the [Senate] campaign and elections committee now going on the sixth session," Bernier said. "That has never been the goal."
The Assembly's Committee on Campaigns and Elections is scheduled to hold a public hearing next Wednesday reviewing the 2020 general election.