MADISON, Wis. – Wisconsin Republicans are working to discredit the bipartisan system they created to run elections in the state after President Joe Biden narrowly won last year's presidential race, making the political battleground the latest front in the national push by the GOP to exert more control over elections.
Wednesday will bring a flurry of election-related developments in the state, with both the Wisconsin Elections Commission and a partisan legislative panel dissecting the 2020 presidential election. At the same time, Republican lawmakers are continuing to attack the state’s well-regarded election administrator in a pressure campaign to have her resign, an apparent attempt to install a GOP partisan in the position ahead of next year's midterm elections.
“This is really just the politics of fear and vengeance,” said Kevin Kennedy, who was Wisconsin’s top elections official for 34 years before retiring in 2016. “This is not about ideas. ... They have effigies they want to burn and that’s it.”
More than a year after the 2020 presidential election, former President Donald Trump and his allies continue to push his false claims that Democrats stole a second term from him. This has manifested in costly and timely partisan election reviews in a handful of states as well as new laws pushed by Republicans adding restrictions to mail voting, which was hugely popular amid the pandemic and embraced by voters of both parties.
Current and former election officials also have warned that the unrelenting attempts to discredit Biden’s win have led to an erosion of public confidence in elections and threats of physical violence against election workers. They worry that longtime election officials will be driven from their jobs, creating a vacuum of experience that in some cases could be filled by partisan actors.
In Wisconsin, elections are overseen by a bipartisan elections commission comprised of an equal number of Republicans and Democrats. The commission administrator is a nonpartisan position currently held by Meagan Wolfe, a 10-year veteran of the agency and its predecessor.
Wolfe was appointed director by the commission in 2019 and confirmed unanimously by the Republican-controlled Senate for a term ending in the middle of 2023.
When efforts to overturn Trump's loss in Wisconsin failed through lawsuits and recounts, Republicans repositioned their attacks to the commission and Wolfe. At least 10 Republican lawmakers have called for the resignations of her or one or more commissioners.
If Wolfe were to resign, the Republican-controlled Senate would likely name her successor. That person plays a significant role in determining what guidance is issued to the state's more than 1,800 local election clerks who actually run elections.
Wolfe on Tuesday called the attacks against her “baseless” and said she was more determined than ever not to resign.
“I really think the calls are based on folks being upset that I’m not willing to change my behavior; I’m not willing to engage in partisan politics,” she told The Associated Press. “The public recognizes politics when they see it. I think they’re smart enough to understand a lot of the rhetoric around this is motivated by partisan politics.”
A bipartisan group of more than 50 election experts from across the country came to Wolfe's defense, sending a letter to Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos calling Wolfe “one of the most highly-skilled election administrators in the country." Wolfe serves as chair of the national Electronic Registration Information Center and in February will become president of the National Association of State Election Directors.
The attacks against Wolfe and the integrity of the 2020 election make Wisconsin “ground zero for the anti-democratic movement,” said David Becker, executive director of the nonpartisan Center for Election Innovation and Research.
Becker said election workers and civil servants such as Wolfe are being used as scapegoats "because leaders do not have the political courage to tell their supporters the truth of the election. And the truth is that it was objectively the most secure, transparent, verified and scrutinized election in American history by any measure.”
Republican lawmakers ratcheted up their criticism of Wolfe and the commission after a nonpartisan audit recommended dozens of changes in how elections should be run and detailed ways the elections commission didn’t follow some state laws during the pandemic in 2020. The audit did not find any widespread fraud or abuse and did not call into question Biden's victory in the state.
A Trump-supporting sheriff in Racine County recommended felony charges against five of the six commission members for their decision not to send special voting deputies into nursing homes, as required by law, during the pandemic.
Many of those facilities were not allowing any visitors, including families, at the time the commission made the decision. The commission instead called for absentee ballots to be used for residents in such facilities, a move they said was designed to protect their right to vote.
No charges have been filed in any Wisconsin county against Wolfe or any commission member.
In addition to attacking the elections commission, Republicans also are backing an investigation ordered into the 2020 election by Vos, the legislative leader. That effort is being led by a conservative former Wisconsin Supreme Court justice who told lawmakers his probe will include examining the allegations raised by the sheriff.
The elections commission was scheduled to meet Wednesday to discuss the audit. At the same time, the Assembly elections committee is to receive an update on the GOP-ordered election investigation.
Meanwhile, state Republican lawmakers are feeling pressure from U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, who in November told them the Legislature should take control over federal elections in the state. Opponents have said such a move would be barred under decisions by the U.S. and state supreme courts. The Republican leader of the state Senate also raised concerns about the legality of doing that.
Republicans can't easily alter the elections commission or change how elections are run in the state because any change in law would have to be signed by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers. He's made clear that he would block any such attempt.
“Wisconsin held a fair, accurate, and secure election under a system Republicans largely created themselves, and the results of our election have been proven over and over again," Evers said in a statement Tuesday. "It’s clear Republicans’ efforts and rhetoric are more about pre-determining our elections and maintaining political power than making our elections more secure.”
Evers is on the ballot next year, and should he lose Republicans would have a clear path to make widespread election changes before the 2024 elections.
One Republican candidate for governor, former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, has been critical of the elections commission and filed a lawsuit in November seeking to suspend the guidance the agency gave to local election clerks amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Attacks against the current commission are similar to ones Republicans made against its predecessor, the Government Accountability Board, which they dissolved in 2015 under a law signed by then-Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican.
The first administrator of the current commission, Mike Haas, was driven out by Republicans because of his work on an investigation into Walker while at the previous agency. Haas stepped down after the GOP-controlled Senate refused to confirm him.
Kennedy, who retired from the state elections post amid GOP criticism, said Wolfe should not expect the pressure on her to let up.
“If she wants it to end, then she leaves,” Kennedy said.
Associated Press writer Christina A. Cassidy contributed to this report from Atlanta.
This story has been corrected to show there are more than 1,800 local election clerks in the state, not 1,200.