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Poll workers sort out early and absentee ballots at the Kenosha Municipal Building on Election Day, Nov. 3, 2020, in Kenosha, W.I. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

Election workers in Wisconsin could get a one-day head start on processing — but not counting — absentee ballots under a bipartisan state Assembly bill that aims to speed up election night results while also curbing election skepticism and increasing voter confidence.

Currently, workers can’t begin processing absentee ballots until after polls open at 7 a.m. on Election Day. This can cause delays, especially in large cities and communities that use a single location to count absentee ballots, and result in large, late-night batches of results, sometimes changing who the leading candidate is.

That was the case during the 2020 presidential election when Milwaukee reported its roughly 170,000 absentee votes, which reversed former President Donald Trump’s lead overnight. He and other election skeptics used this to stoke lies about the 2020 election, including the false claim that there was a “massive dump of votes” in the middle of the night that were a result of voter fraud.

Under this new bill, which passed in the Assembly last Thursday on a bipartisan vote, election workers would be able to process absentee ballots on the Monday before an election. This means they could verify a voter’s eligibility and physically take a ballot out of its envelope in preparation to be counted.

“If you want all the results to come in approximately right after the polls close, then you have to move the starting line sooner,” said Rock County Clerk Lisa Tollefson, whose county includes the cities of Janesville and Beloit that use a central count location to tally up absentee ballots. At these locations, results can’t be reported until all ballots are counted, which slows down the process.

There would also be less doubt surrounding results that come in later, Tollefson said of the Monday processing change, and it would allow election workers to be more diligent.

“This gives them time to actually breathe, and to actually be extremely diligent in what they’re doing to get that work done,” she said.

Under this new proposal, municipalities that use central count locations for absentee ballots, like Milwaukee, Janesville and Beloit, would be required to start processing the ballots on Monday, while this earlier start would be optional for other communities.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers included this earlier processing time on his last budget, but Republicans scratched it at the time. Republicans are now backing this latest bill in a rare moment of bipartisanship in Wisconsin politics, and Evers has signaled he will sign it as long as there are no “poison-pill additions.”

“Gov. Evers will veto any bill that enables politicians to interfere with our elections or makes it harder for eligible Wisconsinites to cast their ballot, but if there are common-sense proposals that help ensure Wisconsin’s elections continue to be fair, secure, and safe, he’ll certainly consider signing them,” Evers’ spokesperson Britt Cudaback said in a statement shared with The American Independent.

This bill still needs to get approval from the state Senate before it heads to Evers’ desk.

The Assembly passed a number of other election bills last week, including a proposal that would make assaulting election workers a Class I felony and give election workers whistleblower protections.

The Legislature also passed constitutional amendments related to elections, which will need voters’ approval in 2024. In April, voters will decide whether the state should outlaw private funding for elections. And in November, voters will decide whether to specify that only U.S. citizens can vote in Wisconsin.

One other election-related constitutional change would essentially enshrine Wisconsin’s voter ID law — which requires voters to have a photo ID — though it will have to pass the next Legislature before it goes to voters. Democrats argue that Republicans are pushing for this constitutional amendment out of fear that the state Supreme Court’s new liberal majority could undo current voter ID laws.

All of these election changes come as Republicans — including Trump — continue to push for the impeachment of the state’s top election official, Meagan Wolfe. The latest from Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos is that there is “nowhere near a consensus” among Republicans on impeaching Wolfe, and that articles of impeachment would not be taken up anytime soon.

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