MADISON, Wis. — The bipartisan Wisconsin Elections Commission failed to pass a Republican motion during a special meeting Monday that would have provided new guidance as to what observers would be allowed to do at the polls on Election Day.

Chair Don Millis, who was appointed to the commission by Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, said the issue had been raised by members of the public at last month's regularly scheduled meeting.

“I do think it's important to act prior to the November election,” Millis explained. “This is not changing an election process or a voting process.”

However, Democrats on the commission raised concerns that proposed guidance would allow observers to be within three feet of the table where voters announce their name and address and receive a number at the polling location.

Current state law requires an observation area no less than three feet and no more than eight feet from such tables where voters interact with election workers.

“Three feet away impacts the privacy that is statutorily and federally mandated, with regards to driver license information of the voter, so I find this to be a massive change,” Commissioner Ann Jacobs, a Democratic appointee, said.

Millis acknowledged the use of the word “within” was a drafting error and corrected the language during Monday's meeting to be complaint with state law. However, Democratic members argued that other parts of the proposed guidance would also conflict with state law, including wording that would have allowed observers to be between three and eight feet of any table where absentee ballot processing happens.

According to Wisconsin law, observation areas “shall be so positioned to permit any election observer to readily observe all public aspects of the voting process.”

“I am concerned that we are starting to micro-manage the agency, and really getting in the way of the staff and not necessarily helping them,” Commissioner Mark Thomsen, a Democrat, said. “Traditionally, items like this are presented by the staff, and then discussed. You are the chair, you get to set the agenda, but why are we making these changes now less than a month out?”

Republican members maintained that more clarity ahead of the general election could only benefit officials and observers alike.

“I think this is a good thing, and I think it's necessary,” Bob Spindell, a Republican appointee to the commission, said. “I think we have complaints from some of the poll observers, and, again, I think Milwaukee does a good job."

The motion to issue new guidance ultimately failed 3-3 along party lines, which means the more than 1,800 clerks across Wisconsin will be left to interpret state law when enforcing poll observer rules.

Commissioners also went into closed session to further discuss a ruling issued last week by a Waukesha County judge, which bans so-called absentee ballot spoiling. The agency has yet to issue agreed upon guidance for election clerks in the wake of the decision. 

While WEC did not reach an agreement on a new policy for poll observers Monday evening, the commission has previously issued guidance, which remains in effect. You can read it here.