Ballot Initiatives: Wisconsin April 4 Election

The Wisconsin election coming up on April 4th is important for the Supreme Court race. Literally what kind of society Wisconsin will be is at stake. Will we return our progressive roots or continue undemocratic and uncivil the politics of the lat 14 years?

But there are also three other items on the ballot that voters need to know about. The first and second are proposed constitutional amendments regarding cash bail. The third is an advisory referendum asking the public’s opinion on work requirements for public assistance programs.

Why are these topics on the ballot? One would think both involve details of law and program regulation best left to judges and social program administrators based on the applicable laws. If changes need to be made in the law, this is the job of the legislature. How can voters, with little knowledge or experience with these topics, vote intelligently on these issues?

The answer is most voters can’t. Nor are these issues something voters need to decide. These issues are on the ballot because Republicans in the legislature are, again, playing political games. They are trying to increase the conservative voter turnout to help the conservative candidate in the supposedly “non-partisan” Supreme Court race.

Nothing cranks up the conservative base like misleading demagoguery on crime and “welfare.”  April elections often have low voter turnout, so emotional appeals about judges being “soft on crime” or lazy “welfare bums” not having to look for work could be a successful get-out-the-vote tactic.

My reading on these ballot initiatives indicates they are mostly non-solutions to non-existent problems. Even if they pass, the constitutional amendments on cash bail will not significantly change how bail works. Most public assistance programs already have work requirements so this referendum is meaningless.

The first constitutional amendment makes makes two minor changes to the constitution’s text on bail. It strikes the word “bodily” from the phrase “serious bodily harm” and adds “as defined by the legislature by law.”

But the wording of the question on the ballot is very misleading and clearly intended to achieve the political agenda discussed above. Here is the actual ballot wording.

“Question 1: Conditions of release before conviction. Shall section 8 (2) of article I of the constitution 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?”

Currently judges have discretion to protect the public from “serious harm” under existing bail procedures. They can, and do, set high bail amounts or they can determine that a defendant is a danger to society and should be kept in jail. The implication in the ballot text is that dangerous criminals are being set free without regard for public safety. This is false. The ballot question was obviously worded to be deliberately misleading.

The second question on the ballot also makes minor changes in constitutional wording about cash bail. According to what I have read, judges have a lot of discretion in setting bail. They can set no bail and keep the person in custody. They can set cash bail of any amount to prevent failure to appear in court. They can use a signature bond where the person is released with no cash involved. Bail bonds, where a person or company guarantees the defendant will appear (for a fee), are not allowed in Wisconsin.

The purpose of bail is to ensure that the defendant doesn’t fail to show up in court. Obviously with cash bail the poor stay in jail and those with money go free. A problem with this is that all defendants are suppose to be innocent until proven guilty. Jailing a person just because they can’t pay a cash bail is unjust. Jailing a person who is not a threat is also unjust. Needless to say, minorities are the most likely to be penalized by cash bail. This inequality has been well documented.

Democrats argue for abolishing cash bail. They say people who pose a risk to their communities shouldn’t be let free for any amount of money. Under current practice a defendant with access to money and good lawyers is usually released on bail. Federal judges don’t use cash bail. Many people suggest the federal practice is better. Balancing defendants rights and public safety is a difficult topic and needs careful legislative action not political grandstanding.

The Republicans claim they are tightening the constitutional wording on cash bail to protect the public from violent offenders. But I find little evidence for this claim in the text of the current constitution or the proposed changes in language. The current constitution (Article I, section 8(2) and (3)) seem to have plenty of wording allowing judges to “protect members of the community from serious bodily harm or prevent the intimidation of witnesses” and to deny bail to persons accused of serious crimes. The proposed constitutional changes add additional, slightly different, wording, but say basically the same thing. The amendments are much ado about nothing.

You can see the wording of the second constitutional ballot question, text of the proposed changes, and links to the current constitution by searching for “Ballotpedia Wisconsin Question 2” and scrolling down to the “Text of measure.”

The advisory referendum on work requirements ask the public if the state should require “able-bodied, childless adults” to look for work in order to receive public assistance. This is a moot question. Most of Wisconsin’s financial assistance programs already have work requirements. Medicaid is an exception. Federal law doesn’t allow work requirements for Medicare. People are on Medicaid because they are sick or disabled. Not exactly good prospects for finding work.

But mean spirited Republicans want to force these people to look for work. They have publicly stated their desire to add work requirements to Medicaid. The referendum is about politics and not saving the state money or doing what is best for people.

In my opinion all three ballot initiatives should be voted down. They are not needed and are pure political grandstanding.