Monday, 19 June 2023 07:58

Wisconsin Republicans Sowed Distrust Over Elections. Now They May Push Out the State’s Top Election Official.

Meagan Wolfe’s tenure as Wisconsin’s election administrator began without controversy.

Members of the bipartisan Wisconsin Elections Commission chose her in 2018, and the state Senate unanimously confirmed her appointment. That was before Wisconsin became a hotbed of conspiracy theories that the 2020 election had been stolen from Donald Trump, before election officials across the country saw their lives upended by threats and half-truths.

Now Wolfe is eligible for a second term, but her reappointment is far from assured. Republican politicians who helped sow the seeds of doubt about Wisconsin election results could determine her fate and reset election dynamics in a state pivotal to the 2024 presidential race. Her travails show that although election denialism has been rejected in the courts and at the polls across the country, it has not completely faded away.

One of the six members of the election commission has already signaled he won’t back Wolfe. That member is Bob Spindell, one of 10 Republicans who in December 2020 met secretly in the Wisconsin Capitol to sign electoral count paperwork purporting to show Trump won the state, when that was not the case.

If retained by a majority of the commissioners, Wolfe would have to be confirmed by the state Senate. But the Wisconsin Legislature is dominated by Republicans who buttressed Trump’s false claims about fraud in the 2020 election. The Senate president has in the past called for Wolfe’s resignation after a dispute over how voting was carried out in nursing homes. Some other senators have registered their opposition to reappointing Wolfe, as well.

Republicans and Democrats have fought to a power stalemate in Wisconsin in recent months. Voters reelected a Democratic governor in November of last year and this year elected a new Supreme Court justice who tilts the court away from Republican control.

A December 2022 report by three election integrity groups looking at voter suppression efforts nationwide concluded that in Wisconsin the threat of election subversion had eased. “The governor, attorney general, and secretary of state, all of whom reject election denialism, were re-elected in the 2022 midterm election,” they wrote.

Still, the groups warned, Wisconsin continues to be a state to watch, noting “the legislature now has an election subversion-friendly Republican supermajority in the senate and a majority in the assembly.”

“We are in a better place,” attorney Rachel Homer of Protect Democracy said of the national landscape in a recent press conference following an update to that study. “That said, the threat hasn’t passed. It’s just evolved.”

There are fears that the state Senate could refuse to reappoint Wolfe and instead engineer the appointment of a staunch partisan or an election denier, tilting oversight of the state’s voting operations.

“It could be a huge disruption in our elections in Wisconsin,” said Senate Democratic leader Melissa Agard. “If you have someone who has this pulpit using it to spew disinformation and harmful rhetoric, that is terrible.”

As for Wolfe, she mostly only speaks out about election processes and stays out of the political fray.

Through a spokesperson, Wolfe declined to comment in response to ProPublica’s questions. In a public statement issued last week, she said she found it “deeply disappointing that a small minority of lawmakers continue to misrepresent my work, the work of the agency, and that of our local election officials, especially since we have spent the last few years thoughtfully providing facts to debunk inaccurate rumors.

“Lawmakers,” she continued, “should assess my performance on the facts, not on tired, false claims.” The commission created a page on its web site to address rampant misinformation.

Wolfe has maintained the support of many election officials throughout the state.

She has been “a great patriot” for not quitting despite the attacks and for being willing to be reappointed, said the executive director of the Milwaukee Election Commission, Claire Woodall-Vogg. “I think she understands the pressure and understands the peril that the state could face if she’s not in that position.”

A Honeymoon, Then Trouble

The state commission was created in 2016 by Republican state officials unhappy with the independent board of retired judges that then oversaw elections. They created a panel of three Democrats and three Republicans, advised by an administrator with no political ties.

The commission provides education, training and support for the state’s roughly 1,900 municipal and county clerks, who in recent years have faced cybersecurity threats, budget woes, shortages of poll workers and other challenges. The commission also handles complaints, ensures the integrity of statewide election results and maintains Wisconsin’s statewide voter registration database. The administrator manages the staff, advises commissioners and carries out their directives.

At first the newly established commission had someone else at the helm: Michael Haas, who had served the prior agency, the Government Accountability Board, which had investigated GOP Gov. Scott Walker for campaign finance violations. (The state Supreme Court halted the probe in 2015, finding no laws had been broken.) As a result, Haas did not win state Senate confirmation and stepped down.

The six commissioners then unanimously promoted Wolfe, the deputy administrator, to the top post in March 2018. She won unanimous confirmation in May 2019 in the Senate, which then-state Senate majority leader Scott Fitzgerald said looked to her to “restore stability.”

“I met with Ms. Wolfe last week and was impressed with her wide breadth of knowledge regarding elections issues,” Fitzgerald, now a U.S. representative, said at the time. “Her experience with security and technology issues, as well as her relationships with municipal clerks all over the state, will serve the commission well.”

The bliss did not last.

Wisconsin was one of the first states to put on an election following the start of the pandemic in 2020, amid lockdowns, fear and uncertainty. The primary that April was chaotic, with legal fights over whether to even hold the contest. Local officials closed some polling places. There were long lines in Milwaukee, Green Bay and elsewhere. The governor deployed the state National Guard to assist, and mail-in voting soared.

Voters masked against COVID-19 line up during Wisconsin’s primary election in Milwaukee on April 7, 2020. Credit: AP Photo/Morry Gash

Later in the year, after it became clear that Trump had lost Wisconsin to Joe Biden in the election the previous November, state Republicans blasted the elections commission for accommodations made during the pandemic, such as the wider use of ballot drop boxes and unmonitored voting in nursing homes. Critics claimed the moves increased the likelihood of fraud and tainted the election.

U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin, proposed dissolving the commission and transferring its duties to the GOP-controlled Legislature. Talk of that ended with the reelection last year of Democratic Gov. Tony Evers. The Legislature would need his approval to disband the commission.

“What’s happened over the last six years, in particular since the Trump years, is there’s been a systematic attempt to undermine the work of the Wisconsin Elections Commission,” said Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause in Wisconsin. “Because it’s apparently not as responsive in a partisan way to the Republicans as they would like.”

Wolfe became a target. Many Republicans accused her of facilitating the awarding of private pandemic-related grants to election clerks that those critics claimed fostered turnout in Democratic areas, though the money was widely distributed.

They also criticized Wolfe for allowing the commission to vote in June 2020 to send absentee ballots to nursing homes during the health emergency rather than have special poll workers visit to assist residents and guard against fraud. Republicans discovered that some mentally impaired people in the facilities who were ineligible to vote cast ballots in Nov. 2020, though the numbers were small and not enough to change the election results. Municipal clerks had received only 23 written complaints of alleged voter fraud of any type in the presidential election, the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau found.

Wolfe was the target of lawsuits and insults. Michael Gableman, a former state Supreme Court justice and Trump supporter tapped by the Assembly Speaker to lead a 2020 election investigation, mocked her attire: “Black dress, white pearls — I’ve seen the act, I’ve seen the show.”

One conservative grassroots group, H.O.T. Government, has been sending out email blasts urging Wolfe’s ouster, referring to her as the “Wolfe of State Street.”

Wolfe does have champions, but they are not as vocal as her critics. “I think she’s done an outstanding job with running the Wisconsin Elections Commission here,” said Cindi Gamb, deputy clerk-treasurer of the Village of Kohler. “She’s been very communicative with us clerks.”

Gamb is the first vice president of the Wisconsin Municipal Clerks Association, but she said the group’s rules bar it from making endorsements.

Dane County Clerk Scott McDonell finds the assaults on the once-obscure bureaucrat troubling. “What has Meagan done to deserve the abuse she’s gotten?” he said. “Nothing.”

Wolfe did receive the support of 50 election officials nationwide who called her “one of the most highly-skilled election administrators in the country” in a 2021 letter to the Wisconsin Assembly speaker. Wolfe is a past president of the National Association of State Election Directors.

And she has had the backing of a bipartisan business group that in February of last year sent a letter of appreciation to her and the commission. “Although the 2020 elections were among the most successful in American history thanks to your efforts, we recognize election administrators nationwide are facing increasing unwarranted threats and harassment. We hereby offer our sincere gratitude and full support,” said the letter from Wisconsin Business Leaders for Democracy.

The 22 signers included the president of the Milwaukee Bucks, the former CEO of Harley-Davidson and two top members of the Florsheim shoemaker family.

An Undecided Fate

Wolfe’s term expires July 1.

To avoid a showdown, some legal experts are exploring whether the commission could take no action and just allow Wolfe to continue past June 30, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. They’ve pointed to the example of Fred Prehn, a dentist appointed to the state Natural Resources Board who refused to leave after his term expired in May 2021, preserving GOP control over the board.

The state Supreme Court ruled last year that Prehn had lawfully retained his position, finding that the expiration of a term does not create a vacancy. And because there was no vacancy, the governor could not make a new appointment unless he removed Prehn “for cause.” Prehn ultimately resigned last Dec. 30.

That scenario now is unlikely. Commission chair Don Millis, a Republican attorney, told ProPublica Wednesday that “there will be a vote” in the near future to consider the appointment of an administrator.

“If someone didn’t think we should have a vote, and we should rely on the Supreme Court decision in the Prehn case, they could move to adjourn,” he said, but added: “I’m not excited about that. To me it would be avoiding our responsibility if we didn’t act.”

Millis declined to say if he would back Wolfe but said he feared that if the commission did not take a vote “that would only add fuel to the fire of the conspiracy theories that we get hit with.”

He warned, “If we decide no vote is required and Meagan Wolfe keeps her position after July 1, I can guarantee you we’ll be sued and the courts will decide.”

Arguing that Wolfe does not have the confidence of Republicans, Spindell said, “I did tell her that I’m not going to vote for her.” He stressed, however, that he thought she was unfairly blamed for long-standing policies set by the commission.

In a letter Wednesday to clerks statewide, Wolfe acknowledged that “my role here is at risk” but said she preferred that the Legislature act quickly to confirm someone, even if it isn’t her. Still, she made it clear she considers herself the best choice to serve the commission. “It is a fact that if I am not selected for this role, Wisconsin would have a less experienced administrator at the helm,” she wrote.

And she also made clear what she thinks is driving the questions about her future, writing that “enough legislators have fallen prey to false information about my work and the work of this agency that my role here is at risk.”

If the commission does vote on Wolfe, Agard said, she expects Wolfe will secure at least one Republican vote, moving her nomination on to the Senate — and what could be a hostile environment.

Senate President Chris Kapenga, a Trump loyalist, told the Associated Press this week that “there’s no way” Wolfe will be re-confirmed by the Senate. “I will do everything I can to keep her from being reappointed,” he said. “I would be extremely surprised if she had any votes in the caucus.”

In the Senate, the matter could first be considered by the Committee on Shared Revenue, Elections and Consumer Protection — chaired by GOP Sen. Dan Knodl. In the weeks after the 2020 election, Knodl signed on to a letter calling on Vice President Mike Pence to delay certifying the results on Jan. 6.

Spindell already is envisioning a future without Wolfe. He said there is talk of conducting a national search for a new administrator, but Millis said there doesn’t appear to be an appetite among the commissioners for this approach. He noted the commission is pressed for time: Come July 1, the state will be only about 16 months away from a presidential election.

State law restricts who can be appointed as election administrator. Appointees cannot have been a lobbyist or have served in a partisan state or local office. Nor can they have made a contribution to a candidate for partisan state or local office in the 12 months prior to their employment.

If the position is vacant for 45 days, the Joint Committee on Legislative Organization, chaired by Kapenga and GOP Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, can appoint an interim commissioner.

As for Wolfe, Spindell said: “She’s experienced. She’s been on all the various boards. I’m sure she would have no problem getting a job anywhere else.”