Wisconsin judge OKs ballot measures for April election

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A Wisconsin judge on Monday ruled that two Republican-backed measures can appear on the April ballot over the objections of criminal justice advocates who said elections officials had missed the state deadline.

One of the measures would add an amendment to the Wisconsin Constitution that would make it harder for people accused of violent crimes to get out of jail on bail. The other is a non-binding advisory referendum that asks voters if they believe that able-bodied, childless welfare recipients should be required to look for work.

Dane County Circuit Judge Rhonda Lanford said the groups bringing the lawsuit had not met legal requirements for a court to intervene. If the decision is not overturned by a higher court, the ballot measures will go before voters on April 4.

Dan Lenz, an attorney for the groups that sued, said he was discussing next steps with his clients. He did not comment on the content of the ruling or say whether the groups will appeal.

The Republican-controlled Legislature hurried to approve the measures last month in what Democrats criticized as a ploy to boost conservative turnout for a pivotal state Supreme Court race. The April election will determine ideological control of Wisconsin’s highest court, which could have the final say on lawsuits challenging the state’s abortion ban and legislative maps that favor Republicans.

State law requires ballot questions to be “filed with the official or agency responsible for preparing the ballots” at least 70 days before the election, making the deadline Jan. 25. The Legislature sent the measures to the Wisconsin Election Commission on Jan. 19, but the commission did not file the measures with county election officials until Jan. 26.

WISDOM, a faith-based statewide organizing group, and its affiliate, EXPO Wisconsin, which stands for Ex-Incarcerated People Organizing, argued that county election officials are responsible for preparing ballots, not the election commission, and therefore the ballot questions were filed past the 70-day deadline. Both groups fight against mass incarceration and work with people who have spent time behind bars.

The commission said in a memo to clerks on Jan. 26 that it is the only entity where statewide ballot measures can be registered.

Riley Vetterkind, a spokesperson for the commission, declined to comment on Monday’s ruling.

David Liners, WISDOM’s executive director, said in a hearing that the group would lose time to organize voters against the bail amendment if the court did not block the ballot measures. The criminal justice groups asked that the measures be delayed until the next statewide election, which will likely be in April 2024.

Lanford ruled that WISDOM and EXPO had failed to prove they would suffer “irreparable harm” — one of four criteria required for the court to block the measures. She also ruled the groups did not prove their case was likely to succeed on its merits or maintain the status quo for election administration.

The criminal justice groups are represented by attorneys from Law Forward and the Stafford Rosenbaum law firms, both of which have challenged a number of Republican-authored laws in recent years.

Republicans have worked for years to enact the bail amendment. The Legislature approved it last year and again this year with bipartisan support. Constitutional amendments must pass the Legislature in two consecutive sessions before being put on the ballot.

Under the amendment, judges would be allowed to consider a defendant’s risk to public safety, including their criminal history, when setting bail. Currently, cash bail is set only as a means to ensure a defendant appears in court. Democratic opponents have argued the amendment could create further inequity in the criminal justice system by allowing wealthy defendants to more easily get out of jail.

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Harm Venhuizen is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow Venhuizen on Twitter.

Harm Venhuizen
Harm Venhuizen
Statehouse reporter and Report for America corps member