Right-wing radio host Dan O’Donnell has been ranting for weeks about election fraud and crimes on his partisan show that airs on 1130 WISN and 1310 WIBA. On Friday in the Capitol, he reiterated his claim that there were enough fraudulent votes to overturn the Wisconsin election result.
Knowing exactly what he would say, O’Donnell was the first person legislative Republicans gave the public microphone at their public hearing on election integrity where the public was not permitted to speak.
For anyone who listened to the Republican hand-selected speakers offer unproven opinions and accusations they deemed evidence, the testimony was similar to what has been said at numerous Trump rallies since the president lost the election by more than 7 million votes to Joe Biden. (Just imagine tirades from Trump rallies repeated from a seat in a hearing room in the Capitol instead of outside surrounded by Trump 2020 flags and MAGA hats.)
GOP members of the committee bolstered the narrative, offering their like-minded thoughts, tossing aside even the thinnest pretense of it being a public hearing to weigh evidence and hear from all sides, rather than an orchestrated effort to reach a foregone conclusion that has been repeatedly disproven.
When Sen. Jeff Smith (D-Eau Claire) asked for people who were testifying to take an oath that they would tell the truth, he was shot down immediately by Senate co-chair Kathy Bernier (R-Chippewa Falls).
Yet Republicans called Friday’s meeting of the Senate and Assembly elections committees both a public hearing and also an investigation into the fall election. The Republican chairs invited almost exclusively white, mostly male Republicans — including attorneys, allies and poll watchers affiliated with Donald Trump — who have already aired their viewpoints publicly.
Rep. Shae Sortwell (R-Two Rivers) said during the meeting that simply having one lawyer say one thing does not make it so. But the lawyer he was criticizing was not one of Trump’s — who have racked up five losses in their repeated efforts to challenge Biden’s win in Wisconsin courts — but rather the body’s own, nonpartisan Legislative Council attorney giving a reading of the law he didn’t like that the Legislature lacks the authority to choose presidential electors.
The Democrats on the committee labeled the pro-Trump spectacle a “sham hearing.” After seeing the list of “invited” speakers on Thursday, Rep. Lisa Subeck (D-Madison) predicted precisely what ended up happening. “This list of invited speakers makes it crystal clear that, as suspected, tomorrow’s hearing is nothing more than a sham proceeding intended to fan the flames of conspiracy theory and sow distrust in our democracy. The Trump campaign’s election challenges have failed at every turn. Meanwhile, post-election audits have found our election was secure and transparent, and election results have been confirmed by the official county canvasses, recounts in our two largest counties, and the statutorily required audit of voting equipment.”
If the intention of the Republican architects behind eight hours of accusations of fraud and illegality in the election were simply to throw Wisconsin’s electoral votes to Trump it might be easily dismissed as another partisan spectacle in the Capitol. But the real point became increasingly clear as the day wore on and Republican legislators began asking people like Trump’s citizen observers for policy guidance and advice. The goal of the hearing was not only to undermine the results of a secure and legally conducted election; it was a setup to usher in legislation — some suggested by the hand-picked Trump-backing speakers — that would make it more difficult for people to vote in Wisconsin under the false guise of election security.
It was a prelude to a slate of new election laws based on testimony from a hearing that Republicans orchestrated to showcase the point of view of Trump supporters.
Republican legislative leaders are now talking of solving problems they have no proof are real. Expect the next session that starts in January to feature plenty of ways to ensure that it is as hard as possible for groups of people who tend to vote for Democrats to cast their ballots, particularly in Milwaukee.
The participants were not subtle about who they saw as the cheaters that they believe stole the election. The meeting began with a brief expression of thanks to the municipal and county clerks, but in the hours that followed speakers accused these officials of everything from incompetence to criminal activities.
Much of the evidence came from anonymous stories or disgruntled citizens who didn’t like where employees doing the recount were standing or the fact that they were forced to be socially distanced. Speaker after speaker made it clear that they believe, without evidence, that mail-in ballots were riddled with fraud. The same speakers took issue with social distancing at the polls. The pandemic, which drove many voting decisions for citizens this year, was largely ignored in the hearing.
Republican legislators’ interaction and effusive praise made it clear that for them, the heroes of the hearing were the people they chose to testify who were making accusations. A terminated postal worker laid out a felonious conspiracy by the Illinois and Wisconsin postal offices to get ballots that arrived after the election counted as valid and former Kansas Attorney General Phill Kline, who has had his law license revoked, described, without irony, “improperly and unlawfully” counted votes causing the “deconstruction of the truth.”
Despite the Republican chairs originally saying the committee would hear from staff and leadership from the Wisconsin Elections Commission, they were not invited. Only two commissioners — former GOP legislator Dean Knudson and Trump-booster Bob Spindell — were afforded the microphone.
Spindell said he knows there was voter fraud because he grew up in Chicago, people in the room might have driven through red lights on their way to the hearing thinking they wouldn’t get caught and people “lie, cheat and steal.” He then posed this question: “What happened in Wisconsin that cost [Trump] the twenty thousand vote loss? It’s three words: Mail in voting.”
Republican Trump observers who watched the Milwaukee County voting and/or recount made some the wildest accusations, including accusing poll workers of committing felonies. These charges were mixed in with myriad petty complaints.
Trump election observer Bart Williams claimed Democratic observers jumped into Republican observers’ chairs if they left to go to the bathroom, so he feels he was not allowed enough access at the recount. And he complained that people were talking through masks. “They don’t want us to have specifics on actual issues we’re seeing,” he said, calling the clerks and election officials “very hostile.”
It was all too much for Democratic representatives — Reps. JoCasta Zamarripa (D-Milwaukee), Lisa Subeck (D-Madison), Mark Spreitzer (D-Beloit) and Sens. Mark Miller (D-Monona) and Jeff Smith (D-Eau Claire) who left shortly after noon, after sometimes being silenced or ignored when trying to ask questions or make statements.
They put out a joint statement reading: “We’ve heard enough. After a morning of wild conspiracy theories that went unchallenged and uncorrected, it is clear that today’s joint hearing is exactly the kind of disgraceful display that we all feared it would be. Witnesses attacked our clerks and poll workers while Republicans gave them no serious opportunity to respond. We will not participate in this sham hearing any further.”
They missed out on testimony that slid from an overt display of partisanship into serious, unsubstantiated accusations.
Mike Dreyer identified himself as a farmer and made it very clear that he is not from Milwaukee but took on the role of an observer at a South Side Milwaukee polling location because he said he and his wife are fluent in Spanish. (He mispronounced the name of the organization Voces de la Frontera as he accused its leader — who he said was a man although its director is a woman — of inappropriate election interference.) Like most of the other people and groups who were disparaged during the nearly eight hour hearing, the accused were not invited to speak or respond.
Dreyer’s racially charged speech accused the Spanish-speaking poll workers of ordering voters to vote for Biden. When he complained, he said, they tried to disguise what they were doing by telling people to vote for the candidate with the last name beginning with ‘B’ so he would not hear them say “Biden.” He also said he saw poll workers filling out ballots for voters, using ballots that were not legal and coaching people on their addresses — with the implication they were allowing people to vote under an assumed identity.
In addition to the accusations of nefarious behavior by poll workers, other villains of the fall elections singled out were nonpartisan Wisconsin Elections Commission staff, elections county and municipal clerks, Milwaukee voters, Mark Zuckerberg, the media, Democrats, the National Conference of State Legislature (NCSL) and the U.S. Postal Service, which conspired to turn in late votes, according to one worker who had been terminated.
Apparently the part about NCSL was off-script because while GOP legislators offered no defense of maligned Spanish speakers or clerks blatantly accused of committing crimes, after a speaker took a swipe at NCSL, both Sen. Kathy Bernier R- and Rep. John Macco R- rushed to clear the name of the group, as they participate in its activities, as do legislators from both parties. The current NCSL president happens to be Wisconsin’s own Speaker Robin Vos.
The “tools” the villains allegedly used to commit their crimes included ballot harvesting, people in nursing homes forced to vote for Biden, same-day voter registration, ballot drop boxes, absentee voting, early voting, absentee voting by people who are indefinitely confined due to illness, infrequently purged voter lists, Democracy in the Park, clerks’ procedures and even burqas or masks that cover one’s face, thwarting Voter ID. A later speaker who had been a citizen election observer was asked by Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) what legislative changes he would suggest. He recommended completely dismantling the Wisconsin Elections Commission — which was actually the replacement for the last state office charged with overseeing elections, the Government Accountability Board, dismantled by Republicans under former Gov. Scott Walker.
The hearing began with Assembly co-chair Ron Tusler (R-Harrison) telling members, “I challenge you to set aside your political beliefs … take off your red hat or your blue hat. … We have to set aside our parties and our political preferences.”
Tusler left the only Democrat, Dane County Clerk Scott McDonell, to be the last speaker after 5:00 pm, telling him that someone had to be last and adjourned after announcing there would be more hearings.
“The only way we do this … is to make sure people are heard, that we hear what the issues and concerns are and to follow through with legislative options,” said Tusler “So that is our job here today. … And to make sure that we never end up in national news again.”