Top Wisconsin election official calls GOP power grab a 'blatantly partisan and coordinated' scheme to undermine democracy

Top Wisconsin election official calls GOP power grab a 'blatantly partisan and coordinated' scheme to undermine democracy
Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin speaking at the 2016 Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland, Gage Skidmore

Wisconsin Republicans are pushing to seize total control of elections in the state, even calling for criminal charges against state election commissioners while stoking conspiracy theories about former President Donald Trump's electoral defeat.

The most powerful Republican state lawmaker is backing calls to charge members of the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC), which was actually created by the GOP-led legislature just five years ago — and this comes in response to an investigation that turned up no evidence of voter fraud. A Republican member of the state Assembly's Constitution and Ethics committee wants to decertify last year's election results. And U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, a Republican and Trump loyalist, is calling for state lawmakers to stage a complete takeover of elections.

The Republican proposals are a "blatantly partisan and coordinated attempt to baselessly challenge the integrity of democracy in our great state," WEC administrator Meagan Wolfe, the state's top election official, said in a statement.

These Republican complaints center on a vote by the WEC during the early days of the pandemic last year. A recent report by the state's Legislative Audit Bureau found no evidence of fraud in the 2020 election but issued recommendations to improve WEC operations. The WEC was created by Republican lawmakers in 2015, over Democratic objections, to eliminate the oversight powers of the state's former Government Accountability Board, which Republicans claimed was biased against them in the wake of a campaign finance investigation. The WEC unanimously voted in March 2020 to suspend a rule requiring special voting deputies (SVDs) to visit nursing home residents before allowing them to vote by mail, because long-term care facilities had barred most visitors from entering to control the spread of COVID. The commission determined there was not enough time before the state's April primary to send out SVDs only to have them turned away.

"We knew that for the protection of residents, only essential workers (which did not include SVDs) were being allowed into facilities across the state," Commissioner Julie Glancey said in a statement. "As such, we knew it was essential to preserve the right to vote for those residents, so rather than require the absurdity of sending SVDs to knock on a locked door, we pivoted to the absentee voting process."

The WEC also urged lawmakers to change the law so nursing home residents could vote more easily, but the Republican-led legislature refused to act.

Although no lawsuits were filed at the time, Racine County Sheriff Christopher Schmaling, a Republican who once spoke at a Trump rally and has pushed voter-fraud conspiracy theories, last month accused the WEC of violating state law during a press conference alleging that nursing home workers had "victimized" residents with cognitive problems by filling out their ballots. Schmaling recommended felony and misdemeanor charges against five of the commissioners who voted to change the rule and called for Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul to launch an investigation.

The WEC said that such allegations merit investigation but that they fall out of the commission's jurisdiction.

"The Commission finds it horrifying and offensive if that sort of thing happened in Racine, or anywhere in Wisconsin," commissioner Dean Knudson said in a statement. "Nobody should ever be coerced or otherwise influenced as part of exercising their right to vote. We would encourage and expect the full force of the law to investigate that situation and prosecute any identified offenders."

WEC chairwoman Ann Jacobs also stressed that while Schmaling cited family members' concerns during the press conference, only a judge can declare a voter incompetent and that absentee ballot rules allow voters to receive assistance in filling out their ballots.

"The statutes are very clear on this," Jacobs said in a statement.

The commission said it had consulted advocates for nursing home residents and that voters could have been disenfranchised if the rule was not changed.

"If we had waited for two unsuccessful attempts by SVDs to enter nursing homes, we would have been in danger of missing the deadline to get their votes collected and counted," commissioner Mark Thomsen said in a statement. "Our goal was to allow as many eligible voters as possible to participate in the election."

The state is ready to investigate "any case involving credible evidence of fraud," a spokeswoman for Kaul told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, but no charges have been filed in the case brought by Schmaling. Kaul later dismissed the press conference as a "disgraceful publicity stunt" and an "abuse of authority."

But Republicans appear to rallied behind Schmaling's allegations. Republican State Assembly Speaker Robin Vos told reporters earlier this month that the commissioners should "probably" face criminal charges, including Knudson, whom he himself had appointed to the commission.

Knudson accused Trump loyalists of trying to find a "fall guy for Trump's loss."

"There's nothing here that that comes close to shifting the results of the election," Knudson told the Journal-Sentinel. "There are a lot of individuals that are under pressure to try to find some explanation other than the obvious one," he added. "That Biden got more votes in Wisconsin than Trump did."

Vos also led Republican calls for Wolfe to resign.

"Clearly there is a severe mismanagement of WEC, and a new administrator is needed," he said last month.

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat who called the GOP push "nothing more than a partisan power grab," slammed Vos for targeting bipartisan election officials.

"Speaker Vos' comments are unbecoming of his office and the people we serve," he said in a statement. "It's my expectation — and one Wisconsinites share — that elected officials in this state treat others with civility and respect. The speaker's behavior today fell woefully short of those expectations."

At least 10 Republican lawmakers have joined in calls for Wolfe to step down. Wolfe told The New York Times that the Republicans' goal was to "pressure nonpartisan election administrators like me into resigning or vacating the election space so we can be replaced by political actors who can be convinced to carry out a partisan mission."

The Republican calls come as some in the party are still seeking to somehow undo the results of the election more than a year after votes were cast and counted. A former judge who has pushed voter fraud conspiracy theories is leading an investigation into unsubstantiated allegations of fraud and some Trump allies are further demanding an Arizona-style "audit," even after the effort in Maricopa County effort revealed nothing untoward.

Republican Assemblymember Tim Ramthun, who sits on the Committee on Constitution and Ethics, last week introduced a resolution to reclaim "Wisconsin's 10 fraudulent electoral ballots cast for Joseph R. Biden and Kamala Harris" and conduct a "full forensic physical and cyber audit of the 2020 general election." Lawyers for the Republican-led legislature explained to lawmakers earlier this month that "there is no mechanism in state or federal law for the Legislature to reverse certified votes cast by the Electoral College and counted by Congress."

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., a staunch Trump ally who has promoted baseless voter fraud allegations, wants the legislature to go even further and seize total control of the state's elections, based on his reading of the U.S. Constitution. He has even argued that Evers could not stop Republicans from taking over federal elections if they wanted to.

"It says state legislatures, and so if I were running the joint — and I'm not — I would come out and I would just say, 'We're reclaiming our authority' … I think the state Legislature has to reassert, reclaim this authority over our election system," Johnson told the Journal-Sentinel, echoing an argument rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1932 and the Wisconsin Supreme Court in 1964. Johnson told The New York Times that he made the call because he believes that Democrats cheat, offering no evidence to support his allegation. Though Republicans have repeatedly accused Democrats of voter fraud or without evidence, numerous voters have been charged with illegally voting for Trump, though cases of fraud are extremely rare.

Republican leaders say they are unsure Johnson's plan could work, but they're not ruling it out.

"The idea of somehow that we're going to take over elections and do all those things, I've never studied that," Vos told the Wisconsin State Journal. Asked if the legislature could get around the Democratic governor, Vos said, "I have no idea."

State Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu told WISN he is not sure there is a "legal opportunity" to execute Johnson's plan and is "not sure how that would work."

David Canon, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told the outlet that the legislature would have to rewrite the entire election law, which it has the power to do, but that Evers could veto any such legislation.

Johnson's idea, which is rooted in the obscure "Independent State Legislatures doctrine," has grown increasingly popular among Trump allies. The theory posits that the Constitution gives state legislatures alone the power to set all election laws. "Taken to its natural extreme, it holds that election laws set by state legislatures supersede any rights guaranteed in state constitutions or even initiatives passed by voters," David Daley, a senior fellow at FairVote, and Gaby Goldstein, co-founder of the progressive group Sister District, wrote in a Salon op-ed earlier this year. "It effectively concludes that there can be no possible checks and balances on state legislatures' authority when it comes to election law."

This formerly fringe theory has been embraced in right-wing circles by groups like the Federalist Society and its Honest Elections Project and effectively by some conservative lawmakers who want to give legislators the power to choose electors if election results are "unclear." The idea has gained some support among conservatives on the Supreme Court as well. Even if Johnson's proposal is unsuccessful in Wisconsin, voting advocates worry that such schemes could soon be exported to other states.

"This is all part of a coordinated and well-funded strategy to enlarge the power of state legislatures," Daley and Goldstein wrote. "Now these bodies are taking advantage of any audacious power play they can imagine — or any wild-eyed reading of the U.S. Constitution — that might keep themselves entrenched in office, no matter how outrageous the scheme or how antithetical it may be to the founding ideals they claim to venerate."

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