Elections Commission delays seeking criminal charges after fraudulent absentee ballot requests
The Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC) met Thursday night to discuss a recent announcement from the Racine County Sheriff’s Office that a number of activists had fraudulently requested absentee ballots as a way to prove the state’s online election system is vulnerable to fraud.
The commission decided to wait until next week to consider referring criminal charges against the activists, but did vote 6-0 to send a communication to local municipal clerks to be aware of the issue and remind them of their obligation to refer cases to their local district attorneys if they believe a crime has occurred. The body also voted 6-0 to send postcards to the approximately 4,000 voters they believe might be vulnerable to the strategy — people who requested absentee ballots be sent to an address different from the one they’re registered under.
On Wednesday, Racine County Sheriff Christopher Schmaling — a supporter of former President Donald Trump — wrote in a Facebook post that his office, which has spent nearly two years investigating apparent voter fraud in the 2020 election, had discovered alleged “vulnerabilities” in the state’s MyVote online system. The apparent flaw was discovered when several right-wing activists focused on sussing out election fraud requested absentee ballots on behalf of other people — including Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Racine Mayor Cory Mason.
Rather than charge those activists with the crime they’ve admitted to committing, Schmaling wrote in the post that he was calling for the suspension of the MyVote system’s absentee ballot request function, which essentially sends an email to a person’s local clerk requesting that an absentee ballot be sent.
Elections officials have responded by insisting that this isn’t a flaw in the MyVote system, saying that the fact that someone can commit a crime doesn’t make it a flaw.
“Claiming that by committing a crime by submitting false information to obtain an absentee ballot somehow reveals a vulnerability of our system is inaccurate and irresponsible,” WEC Administrator Meagan Wolfe said in a statement. “Intentionally using someone else’s identity to subvert the system does not demonstrate a flaw with MyVote, but rather a flaw with that person’s conduct. A nefarious person who chooses to impersonate someone else in order to gain official documents of any kind – whether for election use or any other purpose – is clearly violating state and federal law and could face consequences.”
“The WEC and your local clerk are continually monitoring for any unlawful activity and working with state and federal authorities to investigate any and all attempts to break the law regarding access to absentee ballots,” she continued.
At the meeting Thursday evening, the Democrats on the commission urged the body to take action against the people who had committed the fraud, including Harry Wait, an activist focused on elections who runs HOT (honest, open and transparent) Government. Wait is a supporter of Vos’ primary election opponent, Adam Steen, but successfully ordered an absentee ballot under the speaker’s name.
“I would be willing to take that hit for the country,” Wait told the Washington Post about facing potential jail time for his actions. “You can’t have ballots going all over the place, unsecured.”
“I committed a crime when I did it,” he continued, “but do you think criminals care when they do it?”
Vos has said the activists should face criminal consequences, but when asked by Wait if he’d be arresting anyone for breaking the law, Schmaling replied “hell no,” Wait told the Post.
The Democrats on the commission said that if the body doesn’t take action against people admitting to voter fraud, the practice could spread.
“The reason we’re here is people decided intentionally to break the law and commit fraud,” Democratic commissioner Mark Thomsen said. “And that’s the only reason we’re here. Period. And what happens when people commit crimes, they should be referred and prosecuted. That would end it. That would end this game plan. As soon as a few people go to prison for falsely using people’s names, that’s going to stop.”
The commission’s Republican chair, Don Millis — who was appointed by Vos last month — said he’d be in favor of referring criminal charges against the activists, but that he wanted to wait until the body can meet next week in order to give the agency’s staff more time to collect information about the incidents. WEC Administrator Meagan Wolfe told the commissioners the staff could search for multiple absentee ballots sent to the same mailing address or access the IP address of computers used to request the ballots to determine how widespread the problem is or how many ballots activists such as Wait requested.
But Republican commissioner Robert Spindell, the body’s most right-wing commissioner who has regularly indulged conspiracy theories about the 2020 presidential election and joined in the effort to send false Electoral College votes on behalf of Trump, sided with Schmaling.
Spindell said he could see “vulnerabilities” in the MyVote system and asked what the commission was going to do about those rather than how it would hold the perpetrators of the fraud accountable. He made several suggestions that would make it harder for voters to request absentee ballots as a solution to the problem.
“We want to assure also, the public, that the same thing, we’re going to take every possible way to make sure that this cannot happen to other people,” Spindell said. “And they may need a few extra steps to do it. A vulnerability was pointed out to us, and it’s been out there.”
State law allows an absentee ballot request to be made by email or even a handwritten note to the local elections clerk. The MyVote system simply eases that process by making sure the voter is giving the clerk all the information needed to get the ballot sent out.
WEC staff attorney Jim Witecha, answering a question from the commission about the process for criminal referrals, noted how serious the apparent crimes are because they were made against an online system that’s designated “critical infrastructure” of the United States.
“One final point — to the extent that the commission wishes to engage — is to remember that this is a system that we’re talking about that is an offshoot of the statewide voter registration system, and that’s something that we’re statutorily required to create, maintain and secure,” Witecha said. “And then also that is critical infrastructure that is protected at the federal level, as well as our state level as well. And so you know, these are no small attempted attacks, if you will, because this is a system that has a designation of protection as critical infrastructure of the United States. So this is no small matter, although I think it’s clear that the commission is not treating it as such.”
The commissioners said they planned to meet next week to consider criminal referrals against anyone who impersonated another voter to request an absentee ballot.