Wisconsin Elections Commission Deadlocks on Poll Watcher Guidance

WASHINGTON, D.C. — On Monday, Oct. 10, the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC) failed to approve new guidance on what partisan poll watchers — called election observers in Wisconsin — can and cannot do at the polls on Election Day. The motion, initiated by the Republican members on the commission, deadlocked 3-3 along partisan lines. WEC Chair Don Millis (R) called his proposal “very modest,” but the Democratic commissioners believed the guidance strayed from state law and would cause confusion so close to the election. Commissioner Ann Jacobs (D) criticized the fact that the proposal was not circulated to county clerks for their feedback. This means Wisconsin’s 1,800 election clerks will be expected to interpret state law and previous WEC materials governing partisan election observers.

Several weeks ago, WEC sent a scope statement to Gov. Tony Evers (D) which, if signed by the governor, would initiate a one to two year review of election observation rules. This alternative is a lengthy process with public comment; it is distinct from the efforts on Monday and would not be in place for the 2022 elections.

In Wisconsin, the secretary of state does not oversee elections; instead, that authority is vested to WEC. However, after easing voting access during the 2020 election due to the COVID-19 pandemic, WEC has become the target of Wisconsin Republicans. The commission is currently involved in a handful of ongoing lawsuits regarding previous guidance it has proposed. In fact, a lawsuit against WEC led to the banning of drop boxes in Wisconsin. Recent lawsuits have challenged WEC’s use of an absentee ballot request website; use of a national voter registration form; guidance on absentee ballot spoiling and guidance on “complete address” for witness certificate purposes.