When Wisconsinites head to the polls on April 2, they will find two ballot questions asking whether the Wisconsin Constitution should be amended. The first question asks whether election officials may ever use private funds to help administer elections; the second question asks voters to affirm, in broad language, that only election officials may administer an election. Statewide referenda appeared on ballots in Spring 2023 and will appear in April, August, and November 2024. This blog post will explain why and how so many questions are appearing on Wisconsinites’ ballots, and provide context for the 2024 amendments.

How the Legislature drives constitutional amendments in Wisconsin

In Wisconsin, the Legislature initiates amendments to the Constitution. After passing an amendment by simple majority in both houses in two consecutive legislative sessions, the Legislature refers the amendment to the people of Wisconsin via ballot questions. Crucially, constitutional amendments are not subject to the Governor’s veto. The Legislature gets to decide how to present it to the voters, and courts give the Legislature significant leeway in the framing of ballot questions. Voters then go to the polls, see the questions—usually for the first time and out of context—and vote up or down. If a majority approves an amendment, our Constitution changes.

Notably, Wisconsin’s Constitution does not allow for citizen-led referenda to amend our Constitution. The only other mechanism available to amend our Constitution is a convention, which the Legislature must call, and which has not happened since 1847.

Over the past fourteen years, the Wisconsin Legislature has made itself more and more powerful, avoiding accountability through an egregious partisan gerrymander, weakening the Governor and other executives, and winning case after case in front of conservative courts. (See the resources listed below to learn more.) In the context of constitutional amendments, it is worth remembering that the same Legislature that so aggressively seeks to amend the Constitution is not democratically accountable.

The amendments on the April 2 ballot target election administration

The questions that will appear on the ballot in April would constitutionalize the current Legislature’s preferences for election administration, which are rooted in conspiracy theories. The first question reads: “Use of private funds in election administration. 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?”

This question is a direct descendant of complaints election deniers have been making since 2020 about private grants to Wisconsin municipalities to help them administer elections during the pandemic. That funding came from a nonpartisan nonprofit called the Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL), which provided funds to municipalities in a total of 38 counties in Wisconsin, and many more throughout the country. Right-wing actors claimed that the grants were improper. After the election, they doubled down on these claims, and argued that the grants somehow affected the outcome of the election. They have been proven wrong again and again. Election officials administered safe, secure elections according to the law. CTCL grants helped underfunded clerks pay for training, equipment, and other administrative needs.

Notably, the proposed private funding ban does not come with a matching commitment to fully fund election administration across the state from the public coffers. We’ve seen no legislative action to increase funding for the Wisconsin Elections Commission or for municipalities to run elections. Municipalities are charged with most of the responsibility for running elections, but as the recent debate around Act 12 exposed, municipal financing is broken in our state. The increase in funding from that bill is not a permanent solution to municipal budget shortfalls. This amendment, if passed, will remove a tool municipalities currently have for running safe, efficient, legal elections. And in general, the only way to repeal a constitutional amendment once passed is by passing another constitutional amendment.

Next, voters will see this question: “Election officials. 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?” Detailed statutes already govern who may serve as an election official, and how they must conduct their duties. Why put this issue in the Constitution? Again, the root of the question is in post-2020 election denialism.

In 2020, with the pandemic raging, misinformation rampant, and local and state governments struggling to meet the needs of election officials, various nonprofits offered to consult with municipalities around election administration. Some of these were coordinated by CTCL. Election officials during this time were navigating a huge shift toward absentee balloting, and changes in how polling places would have to work. Consultants brought national expertise to these problems, but they did not and could not change election laws. They advised municipal officials, who ran the elections according to applicable laws.

But after 2020, these advisors, like the philanthropists who helped make the election run smoothly, received outside attention from far-right media and figures like Gableman. People who were unhappy with the results of the election found another scapegoat for their anger. These attacks often took on an anti-Semitic hue—Gableman and others fixated on the fact that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Dr. Priscilla Chan, had made a large donation to CTCL. These intertwined conspiracy theories about Jewish billionaires exercising outsized influence bring to mind similar arguments from history, and the harm they have done.

Both amendments are broadly worded. Would the ban on private funding and assistance prohibit a local pizzeria from delivering free pies to poll workers staffing a site from 6am to 8pm? Would the ban on non-election workers performing election-related tasks prevent legal experts and volunteers from speaking with election administrators about how to handle problems? We simply do not know.

Amendments coming up later in 2024

The Legislature will put three additional amendment questions to the voters this year. In August, a question would limit the legislature’s authority to delegate spending power; but this question is better read as a limitation on state agencies, and could limit grant programs, for example. A second question on the August ballot would require legislative approval before the Governor could spend federal funds, which would have led to serious problems in 2020, when the Legislature failed to convene or take any action on behalf of the people of Wisconsin during the worst days of the pandemic.

Finally, in November voters will see a question about limiting the franchise. Currently, the Wisconsin Constitution provides that “Every United States citizen age 18 or older who is a resident of an election district in this state is a qualified elector of that district.” The November referendum asks whether we should make that language exclusive, as opposed to inclusive: “Only a United States citizen age 18 or older who is a resident of an election district in this state is a qualified elector of that district who may vote in an election for national, state, or local office or at a statewide or local referendum.” This may prevent municipalities from experimenting with extending the vote to 17-year-olds or non-citizens in local elections.

Concluding thoughts

To amend the Constitution, the Legislature takes the first step—and the Legislature we have now has taken power for itself at every opportunity. With the recent shift in the makeup of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, and passage of Wisconsin’s first fair legislative maps in over a decade, the balance of powers is shifting back to the People. Our old Legislature is trying to amend the Constitution just a few more times before its time is up.

But our Constitution cannot be amended without the approval of the People of Wisconsin. Every voter has the responsibility to educate themselves and make an informed decision.

Further reading:
On the Legislature’s outsized control over the framing of constitutional amendment ballot questions: WJI v. WEC
On the partisan gerrymander and its demise: Redistricting
On attacks to the separation of powers: Kaul v. Prehn
On the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s recent tendency to appease the Legislature: Deconstructing Democracy: The Wisconsin Supreme Court, 2021-22