Sen. Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, pictured at Gov. Tony Evers’ State of the State address in 2020, said Tuesday he has received a phone call from Evers and plans to find common ground in the upcoming session. Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Watch
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The Republican leader of the Wisconsin Senate said Thursday that he is considering legislation that would change the state’s military absentee voting laws, reversing his previous position on the issue.

Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu’s support for taking action comes after some members of the bipartisan Wisconsin Election Commission said changes to the law could be the best way to address mostly Republican concerns about voter fraud.

Policymakers became concerned about military voters after a top Milwaukee elections official was charged with making false requests for military absentee ballots and sending them to the home of a state lawmaker days before the midterm elections.

When election commissioners first voiced the idea last month, LeMahieu said he had no plans to consider changing military voting laws. Without the approval of Senate Republicans, any effort to change the law would be dead on arrival.

“I hadn’t really thought about it,” LeMahieu told The Associated Press on Thursday. “I think the incident that happened in Waukesha County highlighted how easy it can be to to cheat with military ballots — to get fraudulent ballots sent to a home. So I think it warrants looking into that process.”

Military voters don’t have to register to vote in Wisconsin and must only provide their name, address and date of birth to get an absentee ballot.

Kimberly Zapata, former deputy director of the Milwaukee Election Commission, pleaded not guilty last week after telling prosecutors she was trying to expose vulnerabilities in the election system when she allegedly used fictitious voter information to obtain three military absentee ballots, according to a criminal complaint.

Voter fraud is extremely rare in the U.S. In Wisconsin, the outcome of the 2020 presidential election has withstood two partial recounts, a nonpartisan audit, a conservative law firm’s review and numerous state and federal lawsuits. Even a Republican-ordered review that drew bipartisan criticism did not turn up evidence of widespread fraud that would change the outcome of the election before the investigator was fired.

Democrats contend that the Republican efforts to create new election security measures are really meant to make it more difficult to vote for demographics that tend to back Democrats.

Election researchers have said there could be ways to quickly verify the identities of military voters without running up against federal ID laws, which prohibit states from requiring permanent overseas and military voters to provide a photo ID. One option already in place in Michigan allows service members to vote online and electronically sign their ballot with a common access card, which is the standard ID issued to all service members by the Department of Defense.

But questions remain about whether the changes would be worth the effort. Military absentee ballots make up a tiny part of the vote in Wisconsin — on average about 0.07% of the absentee ballots requested, according to the election commission. That has translated to around 2,800 ballots in recent midterm elections, and the election commission has said that any significant increases in military voting would be quickly noticed.

Don Millis, the Republican chair of the election commission, said he is tentatively planning to propose a recommendation to the Legislature on military voting at a commission meeting in February. He said he was “very happy” to hear that lawmakers might be open to acting on the idea.

In the last session, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers vetoed more than a dozen election-related bills from Republicans. LeMahieu said he expects to bring fewer election-related bills this time around as his caucus tries to limit its work on proposals that have little chance of passing the governor’s desk.

“I think there was a bigger emphasis last session on highlighting the differences between Republicans and Democrats through the veto process,” he said.

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Harm Venhuizen / Associated PressReport for America Corps Member

Harm Venhuizen is a state government reporter with The Associated Press in Madison, Wisconsin, primarily covering elections and voting rights. Prior to this, Venhuizen interned at Military Times. He holds a bachelor’s degree in political science and philosophy from Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he served as editor-in-chief of Chimes, the student paper. During his time at Chimes, he earned recognition for his investigative coverage of controversial personnel decisions, sexual assault and university employment policies against same-sex marriage. Venhuizen grew up on a small farm in rural Wisconsin, and spent a summer working as a wildfire firefighter with the U.S. Forest Service.