Constitutional amendments pass setting new limits on elections officials • Wisconsin Examiner

Wisconsin voters cast their first ballots in the 2024 presidential race Tuesday and approved two constitutional amendments on election administration, while weighing in on contests for local offices, judges, school board seats and school funding measures in communities across the state.

With 90% of ballots counted, 54% of voters approved a ban in the Wisconsin Constitution on private grants to help offset the cost of election administration, and 58% approved an amendment stipulating that only election officials “designated by law” can handle tasks relating to election administration. 

A contentious battle over a school funding referendum in Milwaukee ended with a razor-thin victory for public school advocates, winning by a margin of fewer than 2,000 votes.

A closely watched “uninstructed” vote in the Democratic presidential primary, intended to send a message to President Joe Biden, exceeded organizers’ goal. 

A heavy downpour across the state in the morning turned into a snowstorm in the afternoon, creating forbidding conditions for people traveling to the polls throughout the day.

Presidential primaries

Biden and Republican former President Donald Trump each won their party’s presidential preference primary, with the Associated Press calling both races within 15 minutes after the polls closed at 8 p.m. Both had already amassed enough delegates to secure their nominations. 

Groups that oppose Israel’s war in Gaza — and the Biden administration’s support for it — launched a grassroots effort in Wisconsin to try to garner 20,682 “uninstructed” votes in the Democratic primary. That goal — the same number of votes that separated Biden from Trump in the 2020 presidential election — was meant to demonstrate to Biden that he must change course or risk losing the general election. 

“Uninstructed” delegates attend the Democratic convention without committing to support a candidate. Organizers, who ran similar campaigns in Hawaii, Michigan and Minnesota, demand an immediate ceasefire in Gaza and an end to U.S. military aid to Israel. 

With 88% of ballots counted the organizers hit more than twice their goal, garnering at least 46,000 votes — 8.5% of the Democratic primary votes cast. The “uninstructed” campaigns were particularly strong in Dane and Milwaukee counties, where reports circulated on social media of groups putting up signs calling for that choice near polling places. 

It’s unclear whether those voters will abandon Biden in the general election, where Wisconsin, a closely divided swing state, is sure to play a pivotal role. 

Trump holds Green Bay rally

As voters went to the polls, Trump flew into Green Bay for a campaign rally on Tuesday evening, where he was cheered by an enthusiastic crowd of supporters who braved the winter storm to line up outside the KI Convention Center for the event. 

Trump spent much of his speech warning of an “invasion” of immigrants “ruining your way of life,” including in Whitewater, Wisconsin. He denounced Biden and “the open-borders Democrats,” and reiterated his false claims that the 2020 election was stolen, saying of Biden, “the only thing he’s good at is cheating on elections.” He also claimed that, had he been president for the last four years, Russia would not have invaded Ukraine “and we would not have had October 7 in Israel. I can guarantee you that.”

As Trump was speaking, a $50 million ad campaign launched on TV and digital media in Green Bay and Grand Rapids, Michigan, Trump’s second stop of the night, featuring former Trump supporters who have turned against him. The campaign, organized  by Republicans Against Trump, emphasized the Jan. 6 Capitol attack and dangers to democracy posed by Trump.

Constitutional amendments 

The two constitutional amendments on election administration were sought by Republicans in the Legislature who objected to a $350 million donation by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to the nonprofit Center for Tech and Civic Life, to help cover the costs of administering elections, including in Wisconsin, during the pandemic in 2020. 

The donation, derisively nicknamed “Zuckerbucks” by election deniers, fueled unfounded conspiracy theories claiming that election interference led to Donald Trump’s loss in the 2020 presidential race. 

Question 1 on the ballot asked voters, “Shall section 7 (1) of article III of the constitution be created to provide that private donations and grants may not be applied for, accepted, expended, or used in connection with the conduct of any primary, election, or referendum?”

Question 2 on the ballot asked voters, “Shall section 7 (2) of article III of the constitution be created to provide that only election officials designated by law may perform tasks in the conduct of primaries, elections, and referendums?” 

Apart from the amendment language, Wisconsin law already sets strict standards for election officials, who must be approved by municipalities and chosen from lists of nominees submitted by both major political parties, must be registered voters in their districts, and may not be candidates for office or related to any candidate for office. 

Conservative groups, including the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty and Election Integrity for Wisconsin, supported both measures, while pro-democracy groups, including Common Cause and Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, opposed them. 

The funding amendment “removes a tool that clerks have used to run safe, lawful and successful elections in our state, particularly in 2020,” said Dan Lenz, a staff attorney at Law Forward, a progressive nonprofit law firm focused on voting rights and democracy. 

The amendment’s supporters rejected appeals by Democratic lawmakers to make additional appropriations for election administration, and the Republican majority on the Legislature’s powerful Joint Finance Committee eliminated a budget proposal from Gov. Tony Evers to increase funding for the Wisconsin Elections Commission. 

“We know that funding is something that many clerks need,” Lenz said. “Our elections are not fully funded, and they should be.”

In the absence of more state funding and now blocked from resources outside the state, election administration clerks will head into the 2024 presidential election handicapped, he said. 

“This isn’t going to be accompanied by increased funding for elections,” Lenz said. “The Legislature has gone home, they don’t have a floor session, and it doesn’t appear that they have an interest in filling whatever gaps in terms of our election administration are caused” by the passage of the amendments. “Clerks are going to be left to deal with the consequences.”

Republican lawmakers drafted and passed both proposed constitutional amendments after Evers vetoed legislation they had passed to the same effect.

“A lot of this comes down to our current gerrymandered Legislature trying to get around the governor in order to exert its political goals in a way that it’s not able to do through the legislative process,” said Lenz. “That’s not what constitutional amendments are for.”

In proposing the second question about who performs election tasks, lawmakers made references to an outside consultant who had worked with the city of Green Bay as it planned for the November 2020 election.

In a fact-check article published in March 2022, the Associated Press reported that claims spread over social media that Green Bay had turned the keys to its election counting facility over to the consultant were not supported.

Citing an April 2021 report from Green Bay City Attorney Vanessa Chavez, the AP reported that the consultant “never actually handled the keys or counted ballots,” but that his role was limited to making recommendations on the election logistics and operations. 

“Election officials in our municipalities ran the elections” in 2020, Lenz said. “Everyone who looked at it has said it was done lawfully.” 

The amendment “is a solution in search of a problem,” he said, but could still have “chilling effects” as municipalities grapple with the challenges of election administration. 

MPS referendum passes in close vote

A $252 million funding referendum for Milwaukee Public Schools squeaked through Thursday, with a 51% vote in favor to 49% opposed after a contentious campaign and overcoming the opposition of the city’s largest business group. 

The Milwaukee referendum was the largest among requests from 85 public school districts on April ballots. Its failure would have set the stage for a $200 million budget shortfall, according to school district projections. 

Election Day sign
Election Day April 2, 2024 (Wisconsin Examiner photo)

The funding requests continue a pattern of school districts increasingly relying on local property taxpayers to help meet costs as state funding has not kept pace with inflation for more than a decade. 

MPS officials said the referendum will help sustain operational costs across the district, including supporting career and technical education programs, attracting and retaining certified educators, and continuing to improve art, music, physical education and language programs. The request came four years after voters approved an operational referendum of $87 million, which was used to support arts, music and physical education in MPS schools. 

District officials, like others who asked voters to approve an operational referendum, said that it was necessary to fill funding gaps that are the result of years of underfunding by the state. 

Wisconsin has capped the amount of revenue that school districts can raise through state general aid and local property taxes since the 1993-94 school year. The cap stopped rising with inflation in 2009. If school districts want to exceed the cap by levying additional property taxes, they must go to voters to get approval. 

MPS has noted that the district “would have more than $210 million in additional support each year if state funding had kept pace with inflation.”

A Wisconsin Policy Forum report noted that “revenue limit dollars comprise more than 80% of MPS’ roughly $1 billion budget for school operations.”

The extra $252 million from the April 2024 referendum, which, the Policy Forum reports, represents approximately one-third of the district’s revenue limit, will reverse a long-term funding decline, “but it would still leave the district short of its 2004 purchasing power.” 

Opposition to the referendum became apparent soon after the district announced the request.

The estimated property tax increase will be $216 for each $100,000 of property value in the first year of the referendum, according to the district. Taxes will remain flat in the following years.  

The Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce (MMAC) led by Dale Kooyenga, a former Republican state lawmaker, invested over $400 million into campaigning against the referendum. Kooyenga has decried the impact the referendum would have on taxpayers, writing on social media, “This is how cities die.” 

The Greater Milwaukee Committee also announced its opposition to the referendum, saying there was a “lack of transparency surrounding this referendum” and a “failure to clearly articulate a measurable plan for how these additional financial resources will improve student outcomes.” 

MPS told principals ahead of Tuesday’s election to prepare for 13% cuts and centralized offices to plan for 26% cuts in the event the referendum didn’t pass.

Apart from Milwaukee’s request, there were 90 other school referendum questions on ballots in 85 school districts across the state Tuesday to fund operational and building costs. In total, all of the requests added up to $1.4 billion in funding requests. 

The second largest request came from the New Richmond School District in St. Croix County, which was seeking $113 million to cover the costs of additions, maintenance needs and renovations at Starr Elementary, Paperjack Elementary and New Richmond Middle School. 

Local races

Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson and Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley cruised to victory in their contests: Johnson for his first full term after winning a special election in 2021, and Crowley, first elected in 2020, for his second term.

In what was perhaps a more closely watched contest in Milwaukee than the two top executive races, outgoing State Rep. Evan Goyke ousted embattled City Attorney Tearman Spencer by a nearly 2-to-1 margin with 97% of ballots counted.

Spencer, elected in 2020, has been embroiled in allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination, including a claim that cost the city more than $77,000 in a settlement plus attorney’s fees. He has also been blamed for high turnover in the city attorney’s office.

Goyke, who opted not to run for reelection to the Assembly this year, has been in the Legislature since 2013, serving on the Joint Finance Committee since 2019. He began running for the city attorney post in late 2022. 

In Wausau, Mayor Katie Rosenberg lost reelection in a race that the Wausau Pilot & Review reported was the city’s most expensive mayoral race in history. Challenger Doug Diny, a Wausau alder, will succeed Rosenberg. 

In Kenosha County, five incumbents on the county board who were part of a Republican-supported majority that took power two years ago were defeated Tuesday night, narrowing the ideological balance on the nonpartisan board. 


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