by Ruth Conniff, Wisconsin Examiner
With all the attention focused on the Most Expensive State Supreme Court Race in U.S. History, Wisconsin voters have not had much of a chance to absorb the ballot measures — including two that would amend the state constitution — they are expected to ratify or reject in the April 4 election.
Along with various local measures and a plethora of municipal races, the April 4 ballot contains statewide ballot questions on pretrial detention and cash bail that aim to alter our state’s founding document.
These measures were placed on the ballot by Republicans in the Legislature after contentious political debate. They arise from the politicization of the Waukesha Christmas Parade tragedy, and they aim to change the criminal justice system so it is easier to keep people who have been arrested but not convicted of a crime behind bars as they await trial.
The issues of bail and pretrial detention (and a third, advisory referendum on making able-bodied people on “welfare” go to work) have been hot political issues for Republicans for years. They are on the ballot in part because they are expected to drive turnout for conservative Supreme Court candidate Daniel Kelly.
But the ballot measure language is both bland and confusing enough that both of my college-age kids contacted me when they received their absentee ballots at school to ask, “What does this mean?”
A Reddit post titled “what on earth do these first two referendum questions mean?” seconded their emotion.
And it’s not just young people who are struggling to understand what’s going on. A friend who works as a special voting deputy helping nursing home residents cast their ballots in Dane County says many elderly voters are well aware of the state Supreme Court race but get hung up on the ballot questions. Many, she says, including Democrats who are voting for the liberal candidate, Janet Protasiewicz, end up voting “yes” on the GOP-sponsored ballot measures since the language about “protecting the community from serious harm” sounds OK.
Wisconsin voters spanning the ages from 18 to 108 who are struggling with the meaning of the ballot measures are not a bunch of dummies. They just don’t have full information.
Take the first question, which asks if the Wisconsin Constitution should be amended “to allow a court to impose on an accused person being released before conviction conditions that are designed to protect the community from serious harm?”
On Election Day, if you vote in person at the polls, you can request a dense packet of background information explaining that this language actually removes the current standard from the state constitution, which states that courts can keep people behind bars to protect the community from “serious bodily harm.” In a separate bill, the Legislature is redefining the kinds of harm that can be considered, giving judges wide latitude to keep people in jail if it would do even psychological harm to others to let them out. Keep in mind these are people who have not been convicted of a crime. And keep in mind also that judges already have a lot of discretion in determining whether to release someone before trial.
Current law already states that “proper considerations” for courts to consider when determining whether to release defendants include “the nature, number and gravity of the offenses” as well as “the defendant’s prior record of criminal convictions and delinquency adjudications, if any, the character, health, residence and reputation of the defendant, [and] the character and strength of the evidence which has been presented to the judge.”
The second question before voters on April 4 asks if the constitution should be changed “to allow a court to impose cash bail on a person accused of a violent crime based on the totality of the circumstances” including the person’s previous convictions and “the need to protect the community from serious harm.”
Under the current language of the constitution, cash bail may only be set to assure that a person reappears in court. Democrats, defense attorneys and civil libertarians argue that bail is the wrong mechanism for keeping people accused of crimes locked up, since it amounts to a penalty for poverty and allows wealthy defendants to buy their way out. To push back on the bail and pretrial detention proposals, Democrats have proposed a package of bills that would make risk assessment, not money, the determining factor for release.
Finally, a third statewide April 4 ballot measure asks: “Shall able-bodied, childless adults be required to look for work in order to receive taxpayer-funded welfare benefits?”
The work requirement question won’t result in a change in the law. It’s “advisory” and suggests to legislators how voters want them to act. But it’s also misleading. As the Wisconsin Council of Churches points out in a message to members: “The term ‘welfare’ seems to be used here to refer to a public benefit program intended to help people in poverty, such as Wisconsin Works (W-2), FoodShare or Medicaid.” But W-2 and FoodShare already have work requirements, the Council points out, and the federal government does not allow states to impose work requirements on people as a condition of receiving Medicaid.
The referendum won’t do much for now. If Republicans at the federal level win the White House and change the law, it could inform a future attempt to make indigent cancer patients in Wisconsin work for their chemotherapy.
The point here is politics.
“The question not only fails to tell the voter which programs are meant, but misleads by lumping them all together and implying that there are currently no work requirements for any,” the Council states.
The message to members from the Council, an ecumenical organization with participants from 21 Christian traditions, adds that “the term ‘welfare’ evokes negative stereotypes of people – especially Black persons — in poverty who supposedly are unwilling to work. ‘Taxpayer-funded’ suggests resentment at having to support government antipoverty programs for those who are believed to fit the stereotype. (And it ignores the many publicly-funded benefits for wealthier taxpayers.) Absent is any understanding of the real lives of people in poverty and the challenges they face. Nor is there any sense that we all belong to an interdependent community, and we can only flourish to the extent each of our neighbors can flourish.”
That’s a nice, neighborly sentiment.
The Council’s message ends with a call to members to see their votes as “a chance to use our voices to express our values as Christians and as citizens. On April 4, let us speak with love for all our neighbors, without exception.”
Amen to that.
This story was written by Ruth Conniff, Editor-in-Chief at the Wisconsin Examiner, where this story first appeared.
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