Election Deniers Now Have More Room To Spread Conspiracy Theories About Wisconsin’s Election Results

GREEN BAY, WISCONSIN - APRIL 02: A resident casts their ballot in the state's primary election at a polling location on April 02, 2024 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Republican presidential candidate former President Donal... GREEN BAY, WISCONSIN - APRIL 02: A resident casts their ballot in the state's primary election at a polling location on April 02, 2024 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump is scheduled to visit supporters in Green Bay later today. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images) MORE LESS
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What is and isn’t allowed in election administration in Wisconsin just became more unclear after voters approved a vaguely-worded GOP-backed constitutional amendment that will provide election deniers with more fodder for spreading conspiracy theories in 2024.

On Tuesday, Wisconsin voters approved two Republican-backed ballot measures that will ban the use of private money in elections, and a second, deliberately vague measure that will limit who can perform election-related tasks in the state. 

The initiatives are both rooted in 2020 election conspiracy theories and election denialism, and designed to sow seeds of distrust in the swing state’s election system, election officials and experts told TPM. 

Similar to actions made in several other states around the U.S., the private money measure was written as a response to the 2020-era “Zuckerbucks” conspiracy theory involving Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan giving out millions of dollars in election administration grants to various election departments to help them run the election during a pandemic. 

But the second referendum, which will amend the state constitution to specify that only designated election officials can administer elections, is particularly worrying, experts say. The change will likely exacerbate the ongoing election worker shortage in the state, and also intentionally muddy who is and isn’t allowed to run elections and help out at polling places. This is currently Wisconsin law, but now that voters have approved it as part of the constitution, it’ll be harder to repeal.

It was also written in response to a conspiracy theory.

Following the 2020 election, some Republicans circulated false claims that in Green Bay, a Democratic operative, hired by the city to help with the election, manipulated the election process. The rumors ran rampant despite the fact that the Green Bay Mayor’s office affirmed that the election was run only by city staff and that no consultants ever had custody over ballots. 

“No individual other than an election official designated by law may perform any task in the conduct of any primary, election, or referendum,” the amendment approved by voters Tuesday evening reads. It will take effect immediately. 

Election deniers often depend on understaffed elections to give them space to stir up false claims, an issue that this amendment will only exacerbate, Jay Heck, Executive Director of the nonpartisan Common Cause in Wisconsin told TPM. 

“The wording of this is so innocuous that it’s going to cause a lot of people to think, well, maybe if I tried to help and volunteer, I’d be in violation of the law,” he said. “But the whole idea behind it is to undermine public confidence in elections. That’s part of a national strategy.”

Dan Lenz, staff counsel at Law Forward, similarly said that this amendment might have a “chilling effect” on election workers, and that instead of a valid policy change it is best understood as “a solution in search of a problem.”

“There are a lot of things that I think go into the election worker shortage,” said Lenz, “but adding things that might have a chilling effect on officials or remove a tool from their toolbox that they otherwise might use to successfully run an election certainly isn’t going to help.”

Supporters of the amendment readily admit it was written in response to the 2020-era false claims. Will Flanders, research director at the conservative law firm Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, told TPM that the amendment is intended to “prevent what happened in 2020” from happening again. “One individual had much more in-depth access to the election process than we’d like to see from folks that aren’t actual elections officials,” he said, referencing the false claims that came out of Green Bay in 2020.

While it may have been written as a response to a specific non-incident in Green Bay, it is not a new phenomenon for Republicans to push vaguely written proposals that seek to limit who can run elections or do election-related volunteer work. In response to the success of pandemic voting efforts in states across the U.S., Republicans began passing legislation that intentionally mucked up who could work elections or help with election administration in states around the U.S. As TPM reported at the time, the new wave of GOP-backed legislation appeared to target voting rights groups and other volunteers who helped people register to vote and combatted disinformation in the months leading up to November 2020.  

Similarly, it is unclear who and what entities will be impacted by the new constitutional amendment in Wisconsin — an opaqueness that is likely intentional. For example, the proposal came with no guidance on what the change will mean for election departments that rely on outside vendors for printing ballots and transporting equipment.

Dane County Clerk Scott McDonnell, told TPM that most of the state relies on vendors for both of these things, and the lack of specificity in the amendment “causes a lot of confusion.”

The amendment also does not address whether or not organizations like the League of Women voters are allowed to help people register to vote, added Heck. 

“The wording of the amendment is so innocuous, but it’s enough to intimidate people into backing away from volunteering when they otherwise would,” he said. 

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Notable Replies

  1. Wisconsin voters had been on a good run with the Governor and Supreme Court – what happened this time? Just a function of low turnout/voter disinterest between “big” elections? Seems pretty harsh to have these enshrined as constitutional amendments.

  2. There has always been debate about the value of voter referenda, and in California they are sometimes gamed effectively (and sometimes very ineffectively) by one party or the other.

    What worries me about these is that they seem to be intended to sabotage the system more than change policy. That is, can you trick the voter into nullifying their rights in a democratic system? Like there is now a third party devoted to gumming up the works, so that those with the most money can remake the country as “Saudi America”, or the “United States of Soviet Republics”.

  3. Reminder to all our Republican friends, in Wisconsin and all across the country, that we can’t switch their ballots from Trump to Biden if they don’t vote.

  4. I’m wondering which state will be the first one to pass a law that says only Republicans are allowed to vote. It would not surprise me at all that ALEC or some other group is trying to design a way to do that…with the way the courts have reacted they could easily get away with it for a cycle or two before it’s shut down. Presuming it is of course, there’s no guarantee with the current Supreme Court that they wouldn’t find a way to go along with it, or suggest a way to do the same thing.

    Republicans really have given up on democracy at this point, it’s all about winning at any cost and in any way…we’ll see later this year how far they are willing to push that.

  5. Indicative of their confidence in the outcome, seems to me. Biden will have to be ready for the shitstorm these creeps are cooking up. Another reason we need a landslide. These people need to be taken to the church of the democratic.

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