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Wisconsin’s Latest Elections Brouhaha
Republican lawmakers want to fire administrator for being good at her job.
MEAGAN WOLFE HAS SERVED as administrator of the Wisconsin Elections Commission since 2018, guiding the state’s more than 1,800 municipal clerks through a series of nationally significant elections. The Associated Press calls her “one of the most respected elections leaders in the nation.” She is unanimously supported by the bipartisan elections commission’s three Republican and three Democratic members. So, naturally, Republican members of the state legislature want her gone.
The Wisconsin Senate’s top Republican conceded, in a private communication that became public, that the plan to dump Wolfe is not legally feasible. The state’s supreme court, in a bizarre ruling last year, held that an official appointed by former Gov. Scott Walker could remain in office until his replacement had been confirmed. Republicans generally accepted the ruling, but now it would block them from replacing Wolfe.
“The precedent from this case means that if [the Wisconsin Elections Commission] doesn’t reappoint Wolfe or a replacement, the senate would have no power to get rid of her through the confirmation process,” wrote Devin LeMahieu, majority leader of the the state Senate, in a June 15 email to local Republican leaders and posted on a messaging app. Thirteen days later, after the commission sought to take advantage of this ruling by declining to reappoint Wolfe or a replacement, the Senate held an unscheduled vote on a resolution to move forward at an unspecified later date with a public hearing and confirmation vote, which will allow Republicans to reject the reappointment of Wolfe that was never made.
Is your head spinning? Welcome to Wisconsin politics.
IT ALL BEGAN IN MAY 2021, when a Republican appointee to the state’s Natural Resources Board, a dentist and former gun-store owner named Fred Prehn, refused to step down at the end of his six-year term. The GOP-controlled Senate decided it was not going to confirm Prehn’s replacement, nominated by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers. And Prehn considered himself too valuable to go. “There’s so many things happening on the Natural Resources Board right now,” he explained. “There’s a lot of topics that I think the board can use my leadership until a replacement is confirmed.”
The state’s Democratic attorney general, Josh Kaul, filed a lawsuit over this affront to democratic norms, which eventually found its way to the conservative-dominated Wisconsin Supreme Court. The court, presumably after noticing that Prehn’s never-ending appointment benefited Republicans, ruled in June 2022 that all this was completely fine. The seven-member court’s three liberal justices, in dissent, called the majority’s decision “absurd.”
Prehn finally did resign at the end of last year but the court’s ruling remained, and with it the ability of appointees to remain in office indefinitely as long as they have no replacement. On June 29, two days before Wolfe’s four-year term was set to expire, the election commission’s three Republican commissioners all voted to reappoint her; meanwhile, the three Democratic commissioners abstained. Under the law, the nomination of an administrator, like any commission action, requires at least four votes.
The stalemate means that Wolfe was not reappointed even though all six commissioners thought she should be. Thus, under the standard affirmed by the court, she can continue to serve.
This is what LeMahieu meant in his June 15 email, which was then flatly contradicted two weeks later when the Senate, in a surprise late-night vote, proceeded to act as though Wolfe had been recommended for reappointment, so it could reject her. Democrats in the chamber—who, thanks to aggressive partisan redistricting, are at a two-to-one disadvantage in the equally divided state—were so angered by this vote that they walked out.
Senate Democrats weren’t the only ones walking. According to Wisconsin State Journal reporter Alexander Shur’s account, “LeMahieu walked away from a reporter inquiring about [his leaked] email without answering questions Thursday. He also didn’t return a text message, phone call or email seeking comment.”
WHAT IS IT ABOUT MEAGAN WOLFE that has GOP undies in so tight a bundle? It seems to be the fact that she does her job consciously and well, which runs counter to the Republican narrative that elections are haphazardly and even corruptly managed, especially when they lead to outcomes that Donald Trump doesn’t like.
Wolfe, a longtime state elections official, took over as administrator in 2018, after Republicans in the legislature hounded her predecessor, Mike Haas, out of office for being marginally involved with an investigation relating to Walker that the GOP-friendly state supreme court shut down. The Senate unanimously confirmed Wolfe’s appointment by the elections commission to a four-year term in 2019.
What went wrong? Well, COVID-19, for one thing. The commission approved changes in voting procedures. Many of those who objected to the changes blamed Wolfe, whose job was to implement the commission’s policy but not to make it. The unusual election procedures were in place for the 2020 presidential election (though the Supreme Court struck some of them down). Wisconsin was one of several states where close outcomes prompted Trump and his cohorts to try to steal the election by appointing a slate of fake electors and spreading lies about election fraud.
In a letter to state lawmakers dated June 24, 2023, Wolfe sought to “set the record straight” over persistent false claims regarding the 2020 election. “It is critical that we work together to provide accurate information about how elections in Wisconsin are administered before another presidential election cycle begins,” she wrote, thanking “those legislators who told the truth about our elections and supported election officials when it mattered.”
Joe Biden beat Trump in Wisconsin by nearly 21,000 votes, as has been affirmed by two partial recounts, a nonpartisan audit, several state and federal lawsuits, a review by a prominent state conservative law firm, and a monthslong probe conducted by a conservative former state supreme court justice at GOP lawmakers’ instigation and at taxpayers’ expense. Wolfe, in her letter, declared:
I believe it is fair to say that no election in Wisconsin history has been as scrutinized, reviewed, investigated and reinvestigated as much as the November 2020 General Election. The outcome of all those 2020 probes produced essentially the same results: the identification of a relatively small number of suggestions for procedural improvements, with no findings of wrongdoing or significant fraud. Since then, numerous elections have been successfully carried out by Wisconsin election officials and their results have been accepted by the public and the candidates involved.
The answer to each of these questions is “No,” followed by a patient explanation. For instance, the claim about thousands of people voting from the same address appears to have sprung from the fact that colleges in the cities of Ashland and Beloit “receive student mail at a central processing center.”
As for the “ghost” or “phantom” voters, this is a conspiracy theory that holds that election fraudsters added the names of fake voters to registration rolls to flip totals on election night and then removed them the next day to cover their crime. According to the FAQ page, “The theory is absurd and has no grounding in the reality of how elections systems work.”
DESPITE SUCH EXERTIONS to defend reality by the state elections commission and others, the lies persist. They are driving the actions of Republican lawmakers in Wisconsin and elsewhere because they are potentially useful in the next election, where even a remotely close result will surely spark fresh allegations of electoral fraud. The more competent the administrator, the more difficult it is for these lies to gain traction. And so Wolfe finds herself with a target on her back.
“As much as it’s been discredited, there is a significant group of people who have bought into it,” said Kevin Kennedy, the former head of the state’s election oversight agency, of the various theories about how Trump was robbed. “They have the ear of enough senators to get them to rethink why you would not reappoint one of the best people that’s ever been working in elections.”
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Cory Tomczyk, a Republican state senator, in a letter to colleagues in May, admitted that removing Wolfe was about the perceptions of wrongdoing. “All of us have heard from Wisconsinites that have their doubts about the election procedures in our state,” he wrote. ”Anything that creates doubt about election integrity needs to be responded to and corrected, to ease the minds of our constituents.”
Meanwhile, Milwaukee Clerk Claire Woodall-Vogg called the effort to blame Wolfe for the decisions of commissioners “terrifying.” And Rock County Clerk Lisa Tollefson said the turmoil over Wolfe’s status made the already high-pressure job of an elections official even worse.
“The turnover in county clerks and municipal clerks is probably higher than it’s ever been, so we need someone with strength to guide us,” Tollefson told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Wolfe, she noted, “led us through 2020. You have no idea the work we put in to make those elections happen, and she was that person that we could count on—boom, you'd get your information, you move on—she helped coordinate so many things. And I don’t see 2024 being any less crazy.”
Kathy Bernier, a former Republican Wisconsin state senator who chaired the Senate Elections Committee, has been a strong if often lonely voice against conspiratorial claims of a stolen election. She thinks Wolfe is being made “the boogeyman” by GOP leaders and that “I don’t think they’re going to find anyone as knowledgeable and educated with Wisconsin elections law as she is.” That’s precisely why they want her gone.
Bernier, also formerly an elected county clerk, was recently named director of the newly formed Wisconsin Advisory Council for Keep Our Republic, “a non-partisan civic action organization dedicated to protecting a republic of laws and strengthening the checks and balances of our democratic electoral system” that also has councils in Pennsylvania and Michigan. Other Wisconsin members include former Republican Governor Tommy Thompson, former Republican U.S. Representative Reid Ribble, and former Democratic Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton.
Ribble told the State Journal that “January 6, 2021, changed everything for me as I saw the damage that was done by a politician who could not accept the people’s choice for President.” He added that “too many Americans lost faith in our electoral system and how safe it really is.”
Bernier vowed that Keep Our Republic “will stay true to our mission—to discover, highlight and help prevent an array of extraordinary threats to American democracy.”
Wolfe, in her letter, implored the state’s lawmakers, including those seeking to fire her, to actively refute the lies that have been concocted to sow distrust in the process, and which put election workers and officials at risk.
“When your constituents challenge you about the integrity of Wisconsin elections, tell them the truth,” she wrote. “When people perpetuate false claims about our election systems, push back publicly. Election officials cannot carry the burden of educating the public on elections alone.”
In the end, Wolfe’s fate will likely be decided by the courts, with lawsuits sure to follow any action by the Senate to reject her reappointment that never happened. If the Senate’s ability to reject Wolfe’s non-reappointment is upheld, the elections commission will have 45 days to name a new appointee. Failing that, a GOP-controlled legislative committee will be able to make its own interim pick.
As this contested process plays out, one huge factor may be that, as of August 1, as the result of the spring elections that Wolfe ably oversaw, the Wisconsin Supreme Court will have a liberal majority for the first time in decades. That could mean, with searing irony, that the court will reverse its bizarre ruling allowing appointees to remain in office past the end of their term, which would allow Republicans to replace Wolfe, once and for all.