Updates to our Terms of Use

We are updating our Terms of Use. Please carefully review the updated Terms before proceeding to our website.

Thursday, July 25, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Conspiracy theories abound at confirmation hearing for Wisconsin elections chief

Whether the elections board administrator gets another term will be decided another day, but Tuesday all but assured a politically charged process backwardly focused on the 2020 election.

MADISON, Wis. (CN) — A hearing conducted by a Wisconsin Senate elections committee on Tuesday over the reappointment of the state elections board’s administrator became an airing of largely partisan grievances and false 2020 election conspiracy theories that persist in Wisconsin, a key swing state.

Some speakers during the four-hour public hearing at the Republican-controlled Senate Committee on Shared Revenue, Elections and Consumer Protection spoke in favor of reappointing Wisconsin Elections Commission Administrator Meagan Wolfe to another four-year term, including current and former municipal clerks and Ann Jacobs, a Democratic WEC commissioner.

Most of the speakers, however, were private citizens against Wolfe, with some calling for her prosecution for crimes they claimed she committed as a public official and the dissolution of the commission.

Many expressed their continued distrust of the state’s elections system and frustration at not having their concerns about the 2020 general election addressed, drawing on debunked conspiracy theories, including those about compromised voter registration lists and voting machines, to support their claims.

Since 2020, Wolfe has been in the crosshairs of conspiracy theorists and many state conservatives who have accused her of a variety of wrongdoing, much of which is fueled by false claims of voter fraud that began with former President Donald Trump and his supporters after he lost reelection.

Around 2 million absentee ballots were returned and counted in the 2020 election in Wisconsin, and the voting option remains popular. But state Republicans and their lawyers have argued in court, with some success, that Wolfe and the WEC acted unlawfully in guiding clerks and voters on casting and counting absentee ballots and administering absentee voting in general at that time, including at nursing homes.

In the last three years state court judges and justices have deemed illegal clerks fixing missing or incomplete information on absentee ballot witness envelopes and spoiling absentee ballots cast before election day, as well as voters’ use of absentee ballot drop boxes. The WEC greenlit all of these protocols, which commissioners in part defended as means to ensure the constitutional right to vote amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

The six-member bipartisan commission appointed Wolfe as the WEC’s administrator in 2018 and the senate unanimously confirmed her the following year for a four-year term.

Wolfe’s term technically expired on July 1, but when her reappointment came up in June, the gamesmanship began.

In a June 14 letter, Wolfe defended her tenure with the commission — as its administrator, she conveys and implements what the commission decides without voting on commission decisions — but acknowledged that “it’s clear 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.”

The WEC’s three conservatives on June 27 voted to reappoint Wolfe and send her nomination to the senate for confirmation. The commission’s three liberals, however, abstained, saying the commission could not vote on the matter due to a recent Wisconsin Supreme Court decision in State of Wisconsin v. Prehn essentially saying the expiration of an appointed official’s term does not automatically create a “vacancy” of that office to be filled.

Though they were deadlocked, the commissioners, three Republicans and three Democrats, unanimously praised Wolfe for her work as administrator.

The next day, despite the WEC’s deadlock, GOP senators moved forward with Wolfe’s confirmation process anyway. They claimed the 3-0 vote resulting from the conservative commissioners’ votes and the liberal commissioners’ abstentions satisfied state law’s requirement that two-thirds of the commission vote on Wolfe’s appointment. Democrats, caught off guard by the surprise resolution, were incensed and reportedly stormed off the senate floor before the session had adjourned.

About a week ahead of Tuesday’s committee hearing, Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul, a Democrat, wrote a letter saying the committee has no legal authority to move forward with Wolfe’s confirmation because a majority of the WEC — that being four of its commissioners — did not vote on her appointment, leaving her in place as administrator.

The Wisconsin Legislative Council agreed with the position shared by the liberal commissioners and Kaul in another letter, saying it was the council’s opinion that the votes of four commissioners is needed to constitute the required majority.

Wolfe herself declined to attend Tuesday’s hearing, citing Kaul’s opinion.

Lisa Tollefson, the Rock County Clerk, spoke in favor of Wolfe on Tuesday, saying she provided “strength, guidance and support” in her role as administrator, especially in 2020 during the uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic.

Sam Liebert, a former municipal clerk and Janesville city councilor, praised Wolfe as competent and fair and praised her ability to “walk the fine line” of the bipartisan WEC and politically fraught issues surrounding election laws.

WEC commissioner Jacobs’ testimony elicited jeers from members of the public in the hearing room and led to some sparring with committee chair Dan Knodl, Republican senator from Germantown. Jacobs appeared in her individual capacity to support Wolfe and the legal notion that, since the WEC never officially nominated her, the Republican-majority legislature does not yet have any nominee to confirm.

Her defense of the WEC Democrats’ legal rationale notwithstanding, she called Prehn, the Wisconsin Supreme Court decision they relied upon to abstain, “peculiar” and “terrible” precedent that should spark changes in state law but is nevertheless binding precedent.

Of the multiple speakers on Tuesday who broadcast baseless conspiracy theories about the 2020 election, perhaps none was more noteworthy than Michael Gableman. The former state supreme court justice was hired in 2021 by legislative Republicans — and fired by them the following year — to conduct a controversial review of the 2020 election, one of three such audits that failed to find evidence of widespread voter fraud.

The former justice accused the WEC Democrats of “hiding” Wolfe from public scrutiny and insinuated that her absence somehow implied her guilt.

Also testifying against Wolfe’s confirmation was Representative Janel Brandtjen, a Republican from Menomonee Falls and a strident “election integrity” truther who last November was barred from Wisconsin Assembly Republicans’ closed caucus, allegedly because they could not trust her. Brandtjen, a bullhorn for election misinformation, blamed Wolfe and the WEC for undercutting faith in the state’s elections, drawing applause from those in the hearing room gallery.

No formal vote on Wolfe’s future at the WEC occurred on Tuesday. Multiple legislators and public commenters acknowledged during the hearing that the issue of Wolfe’s appointment is likely to end up in court no matter what.

Follow @cnsjkelly
Categories / Government, Politics, Regional

Subscribe to Closing Arguments

Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.