Embracing election denial, Wisconsin Senate Republicans vote to fire chief election official
Moments after every Republican in the Wisconsin Senate voted to reject the confirmation of Wisconsin Elections Commission Administrator Meagan Wolfe to a second term, the observers in the gallery — a crowd made up of some of the state’s most prominent 2020 election conspiracy theorists and their supporters in a variety of red Trump hats — erupted in cheers.
When the Senate took a recess just a few minutes later, Sen. Rob Hutton (R-Brookfield) was mingling with the crowd, giving a hug to former Rep. Tim Ramthun, a leader of the state’s election deniers who authored legislation that would have decertified the results of the 2020 election and who led a failed Republican primary campaign for governor focused primarily on “election integrity.”
The Senate’s vote Thursday marked Republicans’ delivery of a long sought victory to the state’s election deniers, who have blamed Wolfe for many of the decisions that they allege amounted to fraud in 2020.
Even though state law prevents Wolfe from taking any action without a majority vote from the six members of the bipartisan commission, she has become the target of Republican attacks over the use of absentee ballot drop boxes, voting in nursing homes during the COVID-19 pandemic, baseless claims that local election clerks are illegally allowing ineligible people to register and vote and accusations that grant money many Wisconsin municipalities received from a nonprofit organization to help with the added costs of administering an election during a pandemic amounted to bribery.
Numerous lawsuits, audits, reviews and investigations have repeatedly affirmed that the 2020 election in Wisconsin was won by Joe Biden. Yet less than three months before the 2024 election cycle begins on December 1, when candidates aiming to be on the ballot in the spring election can begin gathering signatures, the Senate acted Thursday to oust Wolfe based on grievances from 2020.
Despite the celebrations from the gallery, Wolfe’s future remains unclear. The Senate’s vote Thursday took place under dispute from Democrats in the Senate, Attorney General Josh Kaul and the Legislature’s own nonpartisan attorneys — who have argued for weeks that Wolfe’s confirmation was not properly before the body.
In June, when Wolfe’s initial four-year term was set to expire, the commission held a vote to renominate her but the three Democrats on the body voted to abstain. Wolfe’s nomination was recorded as a 3-0 vote, yet state law requires that a “majority of the commission” vote to nominate someone to serve as administrator, which would require four votes.
The abstentions were a procedural move that took advantage of a court precedent set last year when the state Supreme Court decided that appointees to government boards and commissions are able to hold their positions indefinitely so long as their replacement isn’t confirmed by the Senate.
The precedent was set because of the actions by Senate Republicans not to hold a vote on the nominated replacement for a member of the state Natural Resources Board. The board member held onto his seat for nearly two years after the expiration of his term partially because of Senate Republicans’ desire to influence board votes on important issues such as wolf hunting and water quality.
After the vote, Kaul filed a lawsuit in Dane County Circuit Court seeking an order declaring that Wolfe lawfully holds her position and that the Senate had no power to reject her.
“The story today is not what the senate has purported to do with its vote. It’s that the senate has blatantly disregarded state law in order to put its full stamp of approval on the ongoing baseless attacks on our democracy,” Kaul said in a statement. “We are going to court to minimize the confusion resulting from today’s stunt and to protect a pillar of our democracy — the fair administration of elections.”
In a news conference Thursday afternoon, Wolfe said she takes pride in her role as a nonpartisan official who doesn’t give in to political pressure from either party and that for now, she would remain in her post until a court decides she’s been fired or the commission votes to remove her.
“I’ve learned that when politicians on either side of the aisle are upset with me, it’s usually because I will not bend to political pressure,” she said. “The Senate’s vote today to remove me is not a referendum on the job I do but rather a reaction to not achieving the political outcome they desire. It’s unfortunate that political pressures have forced a group of our lawmakers to embrace unfounded rumors about my leadership, my role on the commission and our system of elections. I’ve said it multiple times, and I’ll say it again: elections in Wisconsin are run with integrity. They are fair and they are accurate because they are administered by our nearly 2,000 clerks across Wisconsin.”
Prior to the vote on Thursday, Sen. Mark Spreitzer (D-Beloit) requested a point of order, seeking to have the body declare that the nomination wasn’t properly before the Senate. But after some discussion, Senate President Chris Kapenga (R-Delafield) “deemed her nominated.”
“Despite this vote, there is no nomination before the Senate,” Spreitzer said after his point of order failed. “And there is no vacancy in the position of administrator of the Wisconsin Elections Commission. Regardless of what resolution was passed in June, the Senate cannot simply manufacture a nomination that does not exist. And the Senate cannot have a confirmation process on a nomination that does not exist. So any vote that is taken today on this nomination has no legal force and is not properly before the Senate and I’m sure is likely to be litigated later.”
Even though they didn’t believe the vote had any legal force, all 11 Senate Democrats voted to confirm Wolfe, stating at a news conference ahead of the session that they were doing so as a show of support for her work as administrator.
“Meagan Wolfe should show up to work tomorrow, and next Monday, and the week after that, and the week after that, and continue to do the good work that she does, and continue to support our over 1,800 local clerks who administer our elections and prepare for the four statewide elections that we have coming up next year, so that we can all get back to doing the work that we ought to be doing in this body, to support the people of Wisconsin, and to pass policies that make their lives better,” Spreitzer said.
But Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg) said the Senate had to vote to remove Wolfe because some voters in Wisconsin have lost confidence in the state’s election system.
“Fair and honest elections — they’re the foundation of our representative democracy,” LeMahieu said. “And if a key component of fair and honest elections is that the electorate have confidence in our elections. And if they don’t have confidence in our elections, we’re disenfranchising voters. They’re not going to go out and vote if they don’t feel that their vote is not going to be stolen, or that there’s fraud going on. And the fact is Wisconsinites have expressed concerns with the administration of elections both here in Wisconsin and also nationally.”
The concerns expressed by Wisconsin voters about election fraud have been repeatedly disproven.
Democratic Gov. Tony Evers tied the vote to Republican attempts to retain control of the state’s process for drawing legislative maps and said in a statement that the action is an attack on the state’s election workers.
“Wisconsin Republicans’ attempt to illegally fire Wisconsin’s elections administrator without cause today shows they are continuing to escalate efforts to sow distrust and disinformation about our elections, denigrate our clerks, poll workers, and election administrators, and undermine basic tenets of our democracy, including the peaceful transfer of power,” Evers said.
Kathy Bernier, the former Republican chair of the Senate elections committee who is now leading an effort to counter election misinformation in the state, told the Wisconsin Examiner she questions whether Thursday’s vote will be successful in appeasing the state’s election deniers.
“I guess I was never in a position to kowtow to the far right back when they were demanding all sorts of things after the 2020 election,” she said. “I just didn’t play the game. Maybe this makes the Republican senators feel like they’re going to be able to appease those individuals. I highly doubt it. I’ve met with many of them, I’ve heard many of them complain about things in regard to running elections, most of the information they’ve gotten has been untrue, downright outrageous at times. I don’t think any of that has anything to do directly with Meagan Wolfe.”
Overwhelmingly, Democrats responded to the vote by stating that Republicans are continuing to cause voters to distrust the election system.
“Meagan Wolfe is without a doubt the best qualified election expert Wisconsin could have. She is nationally recognized and well respected and overwhelmingly respected by the clerks in this state who run the elections,” Mark Thomsen, a Democratic member of the state elections commission, told the Examiner. “The notion that Meagan Wolfe is somehow responsible for uncertainty in elections is a lie and a lie promoted by those that also promote the lie that Trump won.”
Thomsen noted that former Republican commissioner Dean Knudson admitted “Trump lost in 2020 fair and square” and added that he’s grateful to Kaul for filing the lawsuit “to stop the nonsense.”
“Meagan Wolfe is the legal administrator of the nonpartisan elections commission staff and every citizen of this state should shout out their support for her and reject this far right attempt at tyranny,” he said.