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Wisconsin Voters Approve Bans on Private Aid for Election Offices

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Wisconsin Voters Approve Bans on Private Aid for Election Offices

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Voters in Wisconsin approved adding language to the State Constitution on Tuesday that will forbid officials from accepting donations of money or staffing to help run elections, The Associated Press said.

The questions were placed on the state’s primary ballot by the Republican-controlled Legislature. They were rooted in complaints raised about the 2020 election, including objections to donations that a group supported by the billionaire Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, his wife, made to local election offices, as well as assistance given to election administrators by nonprofit groups. The donations could be used to defray any of a wide variety of costs, like polling-place rental fees, drive-through voting sites or training for poll workers.

Mr. Zuckerberg has said he no longer planned to award grants to election offices.

President Biden narrowly won Wisconsin in 2020, a result that some Republicans tried and failed to overturn afterward. Voters in the state, which Donald J. Trump carried in 2016, tend to split about evenly between the two major parties, and the state could be decisive in this year’s presidential race. Republicans have argued that funding for running elections should be provided solely by the government and should be allocated equitably to all jurisdictions.

Opponents of the ballot question concerning outside staffing for election offices said Wisconsin law already made clear who could or could not work as an election official, and that passing the amendment could have unintended consequences.

By opting for a statewide vote on the proposed election limits, Wisconsin Republicans were able to maneuver around Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat who vetoed a bill in 2021 that would have banned private grants for elections.

“Regardless of the source of additional funding for election administration, election administrators must always run elections according to state and federal law,” Mr. Evers said in his veto message.

Wisconsin is far from alone in seeking to limit private financial support for election administration, which historically has been paid for by governments. The issue grew in prominence after the 2020 campaign, when election offices struggled to cope with the added costs of conducting elections during the Covid-19 pandemic and outside donors stepped in to help.

Twenty-seven states, all with governments under full or partial Republican control, have passed restrictions on the donations since 2020, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Many of the new measures were passed through legislatures, but Louisiana residents approved limits last year in a statewide vote.

In Wisconsin, supporters of a ban on donated support have raised concerns about local election offices in left-leaning parts of the state receiving more aid than those in right-leaning areas, possibly affecting election results. Though both liberal- and conservative-leaning Wisconsin jurisdictions received private election grants in 2020, Republicans believe the funding disproportionately helped Democrats.

The Center for Tech and Civic Life, a nonprofit group that Mr. Zuckerberg and Ms. Chan supported, gave more than $1 million each to election offices in Milwaukee, Madison and Green Bay in 2020. Green Bay’s county is politically mixed, but Milwaukee and Madison are overwhelmingly Democratic. Smaller cities and towns received smaller grants.

“Our citizens firmly believe that outside money, particularly from liberal states, should not hold the power to determine the fate of elections here in Wisconsin,” State Representative Ty Bodden, a Republican, said last year when lawmakers were debating the issue.

Prominent conservative groups in the state, including the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, urged voters to approve both changes to the Constitution. “Private funding creates an unfair situation when some municipalities realize the benefits of additional election administration funding while others do not,” the institute said.

The Democratic Party of Wisconsin, other left-leaning groups and civil rights groups opposed the ballot measures, arguing that elections were underfunded by the state and that the amendments were vaguely written.

“Grants banned by this proposal have provided a lifeline to help clerks pay for equipment, polling place rental, poll workers and supplies to protect your right to vote and make elections run smoothly and securely,” said the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin, which encouraged voters to reject the measures.

Wisconsin has long been one of the country’s most bitterly divided states, with each party routinely accusing the other of undermining democracy and the rule of law. It has also been slow to move on from the last presidential campaign, even as a November rematch between Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden looms.

When Mr. Trump tried to overturn the results of the 2020 election, three conservative Wisconsin Supreme Court justices dissented when four of their colleagues rejected his claims. Since then, Republican lawmakers have tried to remove the head of the Wisconsin Elections Commission. All the while, a fresh set of district maps, recently ordered by the State Supreme Court’s new liberal majority, threatens Republicans’ longtime gerrymandered hold on the legislative branch.

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