The state Senate plans to meet Tuesday for the last time this session, and it appears unlikely it will address a pair of election-related issues that, without legislative action, could fuel conspiracy theories come November.

One issue is the challenging task of counting all of Milwaukee’s absentee ballots on Election Day. The other is a flaw in the state’s system for tracking adjudicated incompetent voters.

A proposal to address both issues, AB567/SB685, passed the Assembly on a bipartisan vote in November. But Sen. Dan Knodl, R-Germantown, is preventing the bill from coming out of his committee because he wants Milwaukee to get its act together on counting ballots more quickly. The city’s election commission has done so by obtaining a private grant to purchase more voting equipment — a move likely to anger Republicans and election conspiracy theorists further.

The bill would allow municipalities to start processing absentee ballots on the Monday before an election, which would likely blunt baseless allegations of late-night “ballot dumps” in Milwaukee.

The city processed a huge, pandemic-induced influx of 170,000 absentee ballots in 2020, reporting the heavily Democratic results in the wee hours on election night. The late reporting gave Donald Trump and his supporters an opening to claim the results were suspicious, even though news reports before the election predicted such a “red mirage” would happen.

The bill would allow election workers to open absentee ballots and enter them into a tabulator, but not count them, on the Monday before Election Day. Knodl told WISN last month that before he can support the bill he wants to see “that Milwaukee has got their central count in order.”

“It's just not the right time to add a new process, a whole new day to process ballots in a presidential election cycle particularly,” said Knodl, who didn’t respond to a Wisconsin Watch interview request.

Milwaukee will be better prepared to handle an expected 100,000 absentee ballots on Nov. 5, Claire Woodall, executive director of the Milwaukee Election Commission, told Wisconsin Watch.

“If we processed ballots on Monday we’d be caught up. We’d have more opportunities to eliminate that narrative that’s perpetuated,” Woodall said. “It’s frustrating but we’re going to continue what we do, which is not to do it faster but to do it accurately and as efficiently as possible.”

With no additional state or federal funding coming, Woodall has secured a $786,850 grant from Cities Forward, a self-described nonpartisan, pro-democracy nonprofit group with no information about its funders on its website, to pay for two new vote tabulators, 50 new voting machines, 20 additional security cameras and a texting service to communicate with voters.

The grant comes as legislative Republicans have pushed a constitutional amendment onto the April 2 ballot that would block any level of government from obtaining private election grants.

Woodall said she plans to spend the funds before April 2 so the amendment wouldn’t affect the purchase, but it would apply to this type of grant in future cycles.

A Cities Forward spokesperson said the group will report its funders on an IRS 990 form no later than November.

Republicans railed against the Center for Tech and Civic Life distributing millions of dollars in grants to municipalities across the state in 2020 for help in administering elections during the pandemic.

The bill Knodl is blocking also would address a weakness in Wisconsin’s process for tracking those deemed incompetent to vote by a court.

As Wisconsin Watch previously reported, Dane County found dozens of examples of adjudicated incompetent voters in past elections, suggesting there could be hundreds more around the state.

Former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman’s $2.3 million 2020 election investigation first tried to raise the issue of such voters casting illegal ballots. Gableman’s supporters used dubious math to spread misinformation about the issue affecting thousands of votes.

Dane County Clerk Scott McDonell has advocated changing state law to ensure the court information on such voters is provided to the Wisconsin Elections Commission and then to the local election clerks. The WEC has called for a legislative fix.

“They complained about this and we came up with a solution introduced by Republicans and now they’ve turned on it,” McDonell said in an interview. “It’s part of this conspiracy illness where everything is a conspiracy and it’s causing them to be even unable to govern.”

Former Sen. Kathy Bernier, a Republican and state director of the nonpartisan civic education group Keep Our Republic, said she’s not aware of any opposition to the adjudicated incompetent elements of the bill. But she said there are Republicans who still oppose the Monday processing provision because “they truly believe it leaves an opportunity for foul play.”

“There are some individuals in the Senate that do not fully really comprehend the electoral process and where all the safeguards are,” Bernier said. “It’s a lack of respect and understanding of the clerks and their commitment to safeguarding the electoral system."

“If they don’t like the ballot dump they should have passed the bill,” she added. “It’s a no win situation for logical people.”

What we’re watching this week


The Joint Finance Committee will meet in Capitol Room 412E at 11 a.m. to take up several bills, including one that would increase funding for crime victim services.


The Senate plans to meet for what is expected to be the last time this session. The agenda won’t be announced until after Monday’s Joint Finance Committee meeting. Bipartisan bills that have passed the Assembly and could be on the agenda would allow DACA recipients to be local law enforcement officers; require school boards to provide instruction on Hmong and Asian Americans; require disclaimers for the use of artificial intelligence in campaign ads; provide funding for the office of school safety; and increase funding for crime victim services. A bill creating a task force on missing and murdered African American women and girls, which Wisconsin Watch reported last week was blocked in committee, was moved to a different committee and given a hearing.


President Joe Biden plans to visit Milwaukee.

This article first appeared on Wisconsin Watch and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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