Republicans in Wisconsin Are Attempting to Take Over the State's Elections.
G.O.P. officials, led by Senator Ron Johnson, seek to abolish a bipartisan elections agency – and maybe imprison its members.
Republicans in Wisconsin are launching an all-out assault on the state's electoral system, building on their efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election by attempting to seize complete control of the state's voting system.
The Republican effort — which is larger and more aggressive than any other state where former President Donald J. Trump's allies are attempting to overhaul elections — is directed squarely at the bipartisan Wisconsin Elections Commission, which Republicans established half a decade ago and has been under fire since the chaotic aftermath of last year's election.
The onslaught intensified late last month after a long-awaited report ordered by Republican state legislators on the 2020 results found no evidence of fraud but made dozens of recommendations to the election commission and the Republican-led Legislature, bolstering Republican demands for increased election control.
Then, the Trump-aligned sheriff of Racine County, Wisconsin's fifth largest county, advocated charging five of the election commission's six members with felonies for counsel they provided to city clerks early in the outbreak. Later in the day, the Republican majority leader of the State Senate appeared to endorse that notion, stating that "prosecutors around the state" should decide whether to file charges.
And, just last week, Republican Senator Ron Johnson stated that Republican state legislators should unilaterally assume control over federal elections, arguing they had the ability to do so even if Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, stood in their way – a remarkable legal claim that was invalidated by a 1932 Supreme Court decision and a 1964 Wisconsin Supreme Court verdict. Michael Gableman, a conservative former State Supreme Court justice who is heading the Legislature's election investigation, echoed his recommendation.
Mr. Johnson stated in an interview on Wednesday that Republican dominance of Wisconsin elections is vital because he believes Democrats cheat.
"Do I expect Democrats to obey the rules?" said the senator, who has espoused fringe claims about the Capitol riot and Covid vaccinations during the last year. "Unfortunately, I doubt they'll respect the regulations. And some do not, which is the issue."
The outcry about election administration in Wisconsin — where the last two presidential elections were determined by less than 23,000 votes — is exacerbated by the state's profound divisions and key role in American politics.
Some prominent Republican officials in Wisconsin privately recognize that their colleagues are pandering to the party's base by advocating for the criminal prosecution of state election officials or the usurpation of their authority by legislators.
To compound the confusion, Mr. Johnson's suggestion has not yet been incorporated into Madison's legislation. Mr. Evers has pledged to put an end to it.
"The absurd words and concepts supported by Wisconsin Republicans are not about strengthening our elections; they are about making it more difficult for citizens to engage in the democratic process," Mr. Evers said Thursday. He stated that the Republican Party's election promises are "nothing more than a partisan power grab."
However, there is no assurance that the Republican campaign will fail in either the legal or political arenas. In other states, the party's legislators have taken similar steps to increase their grip over the electoral infrastructure. And, since the Republican Party took control of the Wisconsin Legislature in 2010, the state has functioned as a breeding ground for conservative ideas that have been exported to other states.
"In Wisconsin, we're headed for a showdown over the meaning of the clause stating that state legislatures should determine the time, manner, and location of elections," said Kevin J. Kennedy, who served as the state's chief election officer for 34 years before Republicans eliminated his agency and replaced it with the elections commission in 2016. "If not in Wisconsin, they're going to push this in another state and attempt to get a United States Supreme Court judgement on it."
Wisconsin will hold key elections next year for Mr. Johnson's Senate seat as well as for statewide seats, including governor. Rebecca Kleefisch, the Republican candidate seeking to unseat Mr. Evers, is campaigning on a platform of abolishing the state electoral commission. (On Monday, she filed a lawsuit against the agency, arguing that the commission's instruction violates Wisconsin law.)
Republican outrage at the Wisconsin Elections Commission, a bipartisan commission comprised of three Democrats and three Republicans created in part to eliminate the investigative authority of its predecessor agency, comes nearly two years after commissioners issued guidance to local election clerks on how to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.
Republicans have targeted a March 2020 commission resolution that repealed a rule requiring special voting deputies — trained and deployed by municipal clerks' offices — to visit nursing homes twice prior to awarding absentee ballots to residents. The special voting deputies, like the majority of other visitors, were initially forbidden from entering nursing facilities, and the commission reasoned that there was insufficient time before the April primary election to force them to be turned away before mailing absentee ballots.
At the time, the vote was rather uncontroversial: no lawsuits were filed against the guidelines by Republicans or anybody else. The procedure was maintained for the November general election.
However, after Joseph R. Biden Jr. won Wisconsin by a margin of 20,682 votes out of 3.3 million cast, Republicans began making unsubstantiated charges of stolen votes cast from elderly facilities around the state. Sheriff Christopher Schmaling of Racine County stated that the five state election commissioners who voted to allow clerks to mail absentee ballots to nursing homes without the presence of special voting deputies, as required by state law, should face felony charges of election fraud and official misconduct.
Robin Vos, the Republican speaker of the Wisconsin State Assembly and a Racine County resident, swiftly concurred, stating that the five commissioners — including his own appointee — should "likely" face felony charges.
The commissioners have maintained that they did not violate any laws.
Ann Jacobs, the commission's chairperson and a Democrat, said she had no regrets about making voting easier during the pandemic and that "even my Republican colleagues" expressed concern about the state's future of fair elections.
"We did everything we could to assist people in voting during the pandemic," she explained.
Mr. Johnson — a two-term senator who announced last week that he will launch his candidacy for re-election "in the coming weeks" — is lobbying Republican state legislators, whom he visited last week at the State Capitol, to take over federal elections.
"The State Legislature must reassert its constitutional duty and responsibility to choose the election's dates, location, and manner, rather than continuing to outsource it to the Wisconsin Elections Commission," Mr. Johnson stated. "The Constitution makes no reference to a governor."
Mr. Johnson admitted that his idea may result in the state having two sets of election regulations, one enacted by the Wisconsin Elections Commission and another by the Legislature.
"I assume certain counties will approach it one way and others will approach it differently," he said.
Even if Republican legislators embraced Mr. Johnson's idea, it would apply only to federal elections, not state elections.
Mr. Vos told reporters in Madison that he had not conducted any research on the possibility of Wisconsin legislators seizing control of federal elections without the governor's approval. Devin LeMahieu, the Republican majority leader in the State Senate, has expressed reservations about Mr. Johnson's legal approach.
The state's grassroots conservatives remain enraged over Mr. Biden's victory and Republicans' failure to conduct an Arizona-style recount of Wisconsin ballots cast last year. According to The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, at least ten Republican state legislators have called for the resignation of Meagan Wolfe, the commission's impartial administrator, and the election commissioners.
If Ms. Wolfe resigns, her replacement would require a majority vote of the commission's evenly divided members. If it is unable to achieve an agreement within 45 days, the Republican-controlled State Senate will choose.
"The present director of the W.E.C. should resign," said State Senator Duey Stroebel, a Republican who chairs his chamber's elections committee. "Perhaps we should give it another shot with the W.E.C., but this administrator has demonstrated incompetence and an unwillingness to consistently follow the law."
Ms. Wolfe stated on Thursday that Republicans' objective was to "push nonpartisan election administrators like myself into retiring or vacate the election arena in order to be replaced with political actors persuaded to carry out a partisan agenda."
Simultaneously, some Wisconsin Republicans continue to cast doubt on the 2020 outcome.
On Wednesday, Republican State Assembly member Timothy S. Ramthun introduced a formal proposal to decertify Wisconsin's election results, regaining the state's "ten illegitimate electoral votes" cast for Mr. Biden, and conducting a "complete forensic physical and cyber assessment" of the election.
Anticipating Mr. Ramthun's request, the Legislature's lawyers released a report on Nov. 1 concluding that the law contained "no mechanism" for reversing a declared election.
"I encourage you to see it through the eyes of the people," Mr. Ramthun wrote to his colleagues, pleading with them to remedy "the most egregious injustice we have witnessed in our time."
Mr. Trump publicly complimented Mr. Ramthun the following day.
Exasperated and powerless in the Legislature, Wisconsin Democrats have been forced to deliver increasingly grim warnings.