Trump’s last gasp in Wisconsin

November 17, 2020 7:00 am
MILWAUKEE, WI - JANUARY 14: U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a rally at UW Milwaukee's Panther Arena. Trump, who is the third president to face impeached, now faces an impending trial in the Senate. (Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images)

MILWAUKEE, WI – JANUARY 14: U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a rally at UW Milwaukee’s Panther Arena. (Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images)

This is a big week for the Trump campaign in Wisconsin. The deadline for requesting a recount is coming up on Wednesday afternoon, just as leaders of the Republican-controlled elections committee in the Assembly have said they hope to begin hearings on allegations of voter fraud.

Trump is taking his last stand in a swing state he desperately tried to win.

The odds of changing the outcome are looking pretty bad for Trump, to put it mildly. Not only is Biden’s 20,000-vote margin a tough hill to climb in a recount, the Wisconsin Election Commission just announced it will cost the Trump campaign nearly $8 million up front — more than three times what Jill Stein spent in 2016 on a recount that ended up changing vote totals by about 1/100th of a percent. 

The money is a serious concern for Trump, who has a lot of debt to worry about, not to mention additional legal liabilities that could begin raining down on him as soon as he leaves office. That’s why Trump launched a deceptive fundraising campaign that purports to cover recount costs but is really an effort to help him staunch the bleeding as the bills start pouring in. 

Then there is the inevitable crumbling of the Republicans’ phony fraud allegations. These are so transparently false that the plaintiffs themselves voluntarily withdrew their lawsuit on Monday from a federal court in Green Bay, in which they had sought to have votes thrown out from Milwaukee, Dane and Menominee counties, where voters tipped the election to Joe Biden, based on unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud. 

It was a frivolous lawsuit spearheaded by Republican lawyer James Bopp, Jr., whose organization True the Vote has been involved in voter suppression efforts nationwide. Three similar federal lawsuits in Georgia, Michigan and Pennsylvania were also withdrawn simultaneously on Monday morning. Not a good sign for Trump.

“We do not see any litigation that’s been filed as threatening the fundamental outcome of the election, or even changing the results in a single state,” says Rachel Goodman, counsel for Protect Democracy in Washington D.C.

So what are the Republicans up to?

“Nobody thinks Trump won the popular vote or could win enough states to get a majority in the Electoral College,” Goodman says. “They are just trying to delay the inevitable.” 

The GOP seems to be intent on sowing chaos to stir up the base, without any carefully coordinated plan, Goodman adds.

“The question is how much organization and support can the campaign get to push forward with these efforts?” she says. “Trump and Trump World can’t cause this chaos on their own. All of us — but especially members of the GOP — need to make clear that this is a person who lost and cannot accept the result.”

That includes the Wisconsin Legislature, which has been sending mixed signals on the issue of voter fraud.

In a doomsday scenario outlined in the The Atlantic by Barton Gellman, Republican legislatures in purple states could help Trump steal the election by appointing pro-Trump electors after casting doubt on results that showed Biden winning by a thin margin. 

If, through lawsuits, recounts and continuing charges of fraud, the results of the election remain in doubt, the theory goes, legislators in Wisconsin and other swing states could declare that there was no firm result by the so-called Safe Harbor deadline for appointing electors, and then take matters into their own hands. This was the specter raised by Rep. Joe Sanfelippo (R-New Berlin), vice chairman of the Assembly’s elections committee, when he said last week that the Legislature might need to throw out the results of the election or give Wisconsin’s 10 electoral votes to Trump. 

But in an interview with my colleague Melanie Conklin, the chair of that same elections committee, Rep. Ron Tusler (R-Harrison), distanced himself from Sanfelippo’s remarks, saying his vice chairman was speaking only for himself, not the committee, and praising the work of Wisconsin’s elections clerks. Even Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, in the same statement in which he directed the committee to investigate claims of voter fraud, took pains to point out that “Wisconsin’s election system is one of the best in the country. We have well-trained staff that finished counting the ballots well before most other states.”


Heather Ullsvik, Wisconsin’s first statewide facilitator of election protection legal efforts for the nonprofit law firm Law Forward, points out that the Assembly investigators have very limited powers:

“The Legislature’s oversight role includes ensuring that state law is followed and that it is amended to work better,” Ullsvick says. “But the Legislature does not get to second-guess the voters and rewrite the election outcome. Wisconsin law effectively provides for double-, triple- and quadruple-checking our election counts through the successive canvass processes, and the remedy for a candidate who loses by a slim margin is requesting a recount.”

“There is no proper role for the Legislature to interfere in the middle of the election process,” Ullsvik adds. “Every vote has been counted, and now the votes are being fully canvassed.”

For the sake of democracy, voter confidence and the stability of the country, our Republican legislative leaders should state clearly that they will not try to overthrow the will of the voters. 

That’s exactly what Republican legislators in Michigan and Pennsylvania have done. 

Last week, after the New York Times reported that Trump had raised the idea with his advisors of having Republican state legislators pick pro-Trump electors in states where he lost, the Detroit News reported that Republican legislative leaders in Michigan were not on board. “Representatives for Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey and House Speaker Lee Chatfield confirmed Friday that the winner of the popular vote in Michigan will receive the state’s 16 votes in the Electoral College next month,” the newspaper reported.

“Michigan law does not include a provision for the Legislature to directly select electors or to award electors to anyone other than the person who received the most votes,” Amber McCann, a spokeswoman for Shirkey, told the Detroit News.

“Speaker Chatfield’s position on this has been clear from the beginning — the candidate who receives the most votes will receive Michigan’s electoral votes,” Chatfield spokesman Gideon D’Assandro concurred. 

In Pennsylvania, Jake Corman, the Republican Senate majority leader, and Kerry Beninghoff, the Republican majority leader of the state’s House of Representatives, wrote an op-ed declaring that “Pennsylvania lawmakers have no role to play in deciding the presidential election.”

“To insinuate otherwise is to inappropriately set fear into the Pennsylvania electorate with an imaginary scenario not provided for anywhere in law — or in fact,” the legislators wrote. “Pennsylvania law plainly says that the state’s electors are chosen only by the popular vote of the commonwealth’s voters.”

The same is true in Wisconsin. It’s time for our Republican leaders to acknowledge it.

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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. Conniff is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. Her book "Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers" won the 2022 Studs and Ida Terkel Award from The New Press.