Republican Attacks On Wisconsin Election Officials Alarm Outside Experts

MADISON, WI - DECEMBER 04: Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Burlington) addresses the Assembly during a contentious legislative session on December 4, 2018 in Madison, Wisconsin. Wisconsin Republicans are tryi... MADISON, WI - DECEMBER 04: Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Burlington) addresses the Assembly during a contentious legislative session on December 4, 2018 in Madison, Wisconsin. Wisconsin Republicans are trying to pass a series of proposals that will weaken the authority of Gov.-elect Tony Evers and incoming Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul. (Photo by Andy Manis/Getty Images) MORE LESS

Republican politicians are seeking to shake confidence in Wisconsin’s election system with a partisan review of the 2020 results and wild allegations of criminal wrongdoing, marking a dangerous time for democracy in the state, outside experts said Wednesday.

Though Joe Biden won Wisconsin in 2020 with just more than 20,000 votes, it has been plagued for months by false claims of election fraud, frivolous lawsuits, and, now, amped up attacks on the state’s election administrators — a bipartisan agency created by Republicans in 2015 called the Wisconsin Election Commission. 

“They’re using a coordinated campaign to politicize elections across the state of Wisconsin, because it’s good for politics and it’s good for their fundraising, which is a pretty jaded approach to sell out American democracy,” Matt Masterson, a former DHS official and former chair of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, said of Wisconsin Republicans Wednesday.

“What these folks aren’t able to achieve legislatively, they’re attempting to do through a coordinated campaign to target the administrator of elections in Wisconsin and the commission, and the local administrators that successfully administered this election,” Masterson said, speaking at an event held by the National Task Force on Election Crises.

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In recent weeks, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) has called for the state’s legislature to take over the state’s elections and sideline the commission. Robin Vos, the Republican speaker of the state assembly, said that felony charges were “probably” justified for most of the commission members. 

And Michael Gableman, a former state Supreme Court justice hired by legislature Republicans to conduct a partisan review of the 2020 election, implied during a state assembly hearing Wednesday that the 2020 results were the product of a grand conspiracy. “I think it’s very clear that Mark Zuckerberg’s goal was to defeat Donald Trump and elect Joe Biden,” he told the state assembly’s Committee on Campaigns and Elections.

‘A Black Mark’ 

Wisconsin’s top elections officials are under fire from a range of Trump-aligned Republicans.

Perhaps most troubling, Racine County Sheriff Christopher Schmaling called last month for the majority of the election commissioners to face felony charges — a radical step stemming from a small procedural change related to the COVID pandemic: The commission voted to have clerks send absentee ballots to nursing home residents, rather than sending poll workers to oversee the voting.

The local prosecutor hasn’t filed any charges, but Rachel Kleinfeld, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the sheriff’s call marked a troubling shift. 

“Partisan policing takes these issues to an entirely different level,” Kleinfeld said at the National Task Force on Election Crises event. “When law enforcement are seen not as agents of the state executing the rule of law, however flawed, but as agents of political parties that are using the powers of state to deepen political power, faith in the law itself evaporates.” 

The commission is also under fire from a more established source in the state: The Legislative Audit Bureau published a report in October on the 2020 elections that, while it did not assert any fraud or cheating in the election, alleged shortcomings by the commission. 

Crucially, the audit bureau broke with past practice, not allowing the commission to respond to the report before it was published. Commission administrator Megan Wolfe said the report contained multiple errors, and at a public meeting of the commission Wednesday, members of the agency from both parties fumed. 

“If they can’t acknowledge that they got it wrong, then that will really be a black mark,” said Commissioner Dean Knudson, a Republican former lawmaker appointed by Vos in 2017, referring to the audit bureau report.

By not approaching the commission for comment before releasing the report, Knudson added, auditors “decided they would walk the high wire without a net.”

But Republicans have seized on the report in a bid to discredit the commission, and Vos and others have called for Wolfe’s resignation. She’s resisted those calls, calling them “partisan politics,” and dozens of election officials and experts signed onto a letter to Vos supporting Wolfe last month. 

“It seems that some, unhappy with an election that has been upheld and verified by members of both parties, and judges appointed by both parties, for over a year, now seek to tarnish her good name in an attempt to bully her into resigning,” the letter read.

“If this is being done so that she can be replaced by someone more pliable to those pursuing partisan aims, it would contravene the very purpose of the WEC that you created.”

The commission, for its part, has tried fighting back against the tsunami of misinformation and attacks, publishing answers to frequently asked questions on its website — though some of them, by necessity, veer into the absurd. “Did Wisconsin ballots have any special encoding with invisible watermarks or blockchain codes?” one question reads. (No, the FAQ clarifies, they did not.) 

More To Come

Gableman’s testimony before the state assembly committee Wednesday indicated there’d likely be more partisan attacks on Wisconsin elections to come. 

During the hearing, the former state Supreme Court justice revealed the roster of taxpayer-funded investigators he’d brought on to his review — listing names closely associated with attempts to reverse the presidential election results.

One of them, Ron Heuer, is the chairman of the Republican Party in Kewaunee County and the president of a group, the Wisconsin Voters Alliance, that brought multiple unsuccessful lawsuits seeking to overturn the 2020 election, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported. Gableman is now sharing office space with the firm that helped Heuer’s group file the suits, the paper noted.

Democratic State Rep. Mark Spreitzer pointed out the connection at Wednesday’s hearing. 

“Why do you feel it is appropriate to employ Mr. Heuer who specifically sued to overturn the will of the people of Wisconsin?” Spreitzer asked. “Do you agree with him about that?”

Gableman did not directly answer, the Madison-based Capital Times reported. Instead, he called Heuer “a fine and honorable man.”

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