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New GOP head wants earlier ballot counting in Wisconsin

December 17, 2020 GMT

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The incoming Republican majority leader in the Wisconsin Senate wants to pass a bill early in 2021 to change state law to allow for the counting of absentee ballots before Election Day, a change he tried to get passed with Democratic support last year but never got a vote in the Legislature.

Sen. Devin LeMahieu, in an interview Thursday with The Associated Press, said allowing for earlier counting of ballots is one of his priorities as the Legislature looks to make changes to how elections in the battleground state are run. There is a push among Republicans to make changes in the wake of President Donald Trump’s unfounded claims of widespread fraud that were rejected by state and federal courts.

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Trump lost Wisconsin by nearly 21,000 votes.

LeMahieu admitted he had “no idea” if fellow Republicans who will control the Senate 20-12 would go along with allowing for earlier absentee voting.

“I have no idea where my caucus would be at on that but I would think (it would pass),” LeMahieu said. “As long as it’s secure, I would think we could get there.”

It would also have to pass the GOP-controlled Assembly, which last year supported a more limited bill that would only allow for people voting in-person early to feed their ballots into counting machines. Mailed-in ballots, of which there were nearly 1.3 million this year, would not be counted early.

Anything the Legislature passes has to be signed by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers to become law, making it unlikely that widespread election changes would occur.

But Evers and Democrats have been supportive of allowing local elections officials to begin counting absentee ballots earlier than on Election Day. Current law prohibits any ballots to be counted before the polls open at 7 a.m.

With nearly 2 million ballots cast absentee in Wisconsin, that resulted in results in some counties not being reported until later than usual on election night. In Milwaukee and Green Bay, where all ballots are counted at a central location, state law forbids reporting partial results. That led to totals in those counties, which heavily favored Biden, not being announced until between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m.

That fueled rumors and false accusations on social media, and by Trump, that Wisconsin had “found” more than 100,000 ballots for Biden in the middle of the night.

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LeMahieu said anything that can be done to increase the faith in election results should be pursued, and part of that is getting absentee ballots counted more quickly. His bill last year would have allowed counting to start the day before the election, but LeMahieu said Thursday that may not work for local officials who are busy that day getting ready for the election. He said he would work with them on a new version that could pass the Senate by July.

His bill last year never made it out of committee.

His proposal had support from the head elections officials in Dane and Milwaukee counties, as well as Democrats in the Legislature, but other clerks opposed it saying details needed to be worked out.

U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, a Republican, irged the Legislature in September to allow for the earlier counting of absentee ballots so the results would be known sooner. That call was echoed by Democratic state lawmakers who in October urged the Legislature to pass LeMahieu’s bill, but no action was taken.

Trump and other critics of how the election ran have raised other issues. That includes voters being able to identify themselves as “indefinitely confined,” a status that allows them to vote absentee without presenting a photo ID and election clerks filling in missing information on the certificate envelope that contains absentee ballots.

Trump argued for disqualifying more than 221,000 ballots in Wisconsin, but the Wisconsin Supreme Court on Monday rejected the lawsuit. Republican lawmakers have called for clarifying state law in those areas and others.

“Any way to clarify state law will be looking to do that,” LeMahieu said.

Also on Thursday, LeMahieu and 14 other Republican senators sent Evers a letter urging him to support “common sense reforms” to improve elections. Many of the concerns raised in the letter mirrored those brought by Trump and his allies in the rejected lawsuits.