On Wednesday, Assembly Republicans held a committee hearing examining the logistics of the November election in Green Bay. The only people the committee invited to testify were individuals backing up the baseless assertion that election fraud had taken place.
This “informational hearing” of the Assembly Campaigns and Elections Committee was the second hearing designed to take a skeptical look at the results of the 2020 presidential election, and also the second hearing to feature invited guests only, with no public participation.
The speakers were all Republicans, primarily offering personal anecdotes and opinions, sometimes in response to leading questions from Republican committee members.
The selected speakers were invited by committee chair Rep. Janel Brandtjen (R-Menomonee Falls), who more than a month after Nov. 3 sent her constituents an email falsely stating: “There is no doubt that after the filed affidavits and lawsuit, Donald Trump won this election in Wisconsin and several methods of fraud were used to change the outcome.”
Despite the fact that Brandtjen disseminated such false claims, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos appointed her to be the chair of the elections committee — which he has said will work on elections as one of his top priorities of the session.
The hearing had the air of a staged play with the representatives and speakers following a script filled with compliments toward one another as they spoke of weeding out presumed fraud and cracking down on voters and politicians of opposing parties and viewpoints. The target was private grants that municipalities took to help fund election operations.
“This isn’t about the 2020 election … it’s about the future of election integrity in Wisconsin,” said attorney Erick Kaardal, who opposed private grant money from being used to fund election operations. Kaardal, an attorney with the conservative Thomas More Society, lost in both state and federal court in his attempt to stop more than $6 million donated by the Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL) going to more than 100 Wisconsin municipalities.
Testifying for more than an hour, Kaardal, representing the Republican-tied Wisconsin Voters Alliance, stated that Green Bay had ceded the running of its election to “a private corporation” that wanted to run the election “their way.”
He describes CTCL as forcing its rules on certain communities. “It’s like an anthropologist, you look and you say, ‘Why are all these people in urban areas — Philadelphia, Detroit, Milwaukee, now Green Bay — talking the same language about elections? Why aren’t they talking Wisconsin language? They’re talking private corporation language.” Kaardal stated he believes something illegal happened, although a bill prohibiting local election officials from accepting outside donations to fund election operations was introduced just last month by Sen. Duey Stroebel (R-Saukville).
The Green Bay Mayor’s Office put out a statement in response to the accusations — and calls from several Republican legislators for the mayor to resign — reading in part: “The City’s conduct of election in 2020 has been heavily scrutinized, including being the subject of numerous records requests, news articles, and lawsuits. In each case, the City’s actions have been upheld. These allegations are completely without merit.” It also states that both city attorneys and the Wisconsin Elections Commission were consulted regularly on elections planning.
A search of complaints on the Elections Commission website shows no complaints specific to Green Bay, and one complaint from Sept. 2020 directed at all the larger grant recipient cities. The commission closed that complaint “because it … fails to state probable cause that a violation of law under the jurisdiction of the Commission has been violated.”
Rep. Mark Spreitzer (D-Beloit), the ranking Democratic member of the committee, described the hearing as “a number of people who were clearly coming to make wild accusations about various folks who helped run the election in Green Bay.”
“When you have a one-sided hearing like that, where accusations are made, and there’s no opportunity to respond to them, it’s clear that the goal is not to get to the bottom of facts,” says Spreitzer. “The goal is a smear campaign. And that’s exactly what we saw.”
The speakers levied personal attacks on Green Bay Mayor Eric Genrich, city staff and election officials they disagreed with — yet none of the people being disparaged were invited or were even informed about the hearing. Spreitzer says Democratic committee members were given the names of invited speakers just hours before the meeting began.
Brandtjen did not respond to a query on how she chose the speakers and if she had asked anyone from the city of Green Bay to attend, but a spokesperson for Green Bay Mayor’s Office said they were kept in the dark.
“We did not receive an invitation or any information about this hearing,” confirmed Amaad Rivera, the mayor’s community liaison.
The ‘Wisconsin Five’
Rivera, who was at the central ballot tallying location on election night in his official role, was the target of criticism from three Republican observers who were on site, questioning officials, moving to get close to workers and ballots machines against COVID distancing protocols and — one admitted with a laugh — going places she was not supposed to be.
Rivera, a gay person of color, was described by the invited speakers as “hostile,” “flamboyant,” “boisterous,” “a hot head,” “very loud,” “confrontational,” and “visibly perturbed,” along with multiple assertions regarding his intelligence and allegedly threatening demeanor. He and the mayor were criticized for staring at their phones and using fingers to type, a commonplace election night behavior that was somehow twisted at the hearing to imply they were doing something suspicious.
Another invited speaker, Green Bay resident Matt Roeser, who was at Central Count on election night said, “I watched him because he’s a divisive kind of guy,” and said he and his wife felt threatened. Roeser mentioned multiple times how “sad” he was about the changing nature of Green Bay, where he said he’d spent his life and raised his kids.
At one point Rep. Ron Tusler (R-Harrison) asked if it was fair to say that Rivera was intending to be intimidating, to which Roeser replied affirmatively, adding, “I was not comfortable with him knowing who we were.”
It was almost an hour into the hearing before a speaker mentioned that CTCL received funding from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerburg. Money from CTCL grants was given to what the first speaker, Kaardal, dubbed “The Wisconsin Five” — the urban communities of Milwaukee, Madison, Green Bay, Racine and Kenosha.
The discussion regarding CTCL funding led to multiple speakers describing Michael Spitzer-Rubenstein as running the Green Bay election, even though he was with the National Vote at Home Institute, a separate nonprofit with similar goals.
One of the citizen observers — Elizabeth Rankin — said of Spitzer-Rubenstein, “I said I’m keeping an eye on this guy. He’s kind of suspicious.” Later she said she’d been following him around the facility. “I would try to follow him. I’d go toward him, he’d go in the opposite direction.” She also cited him having his own table, being “constantly on his phone” and looking at a spreadsheet on a laptop as evidence of likely problems. No mention of COVID social distancing or mask wearing came up in any of these testimonies.
Spreitzer believes some of the charges were rooted in personal politics of people who don’t like that Green Bay elected a Democrat as mayor and therefore sought to undermine Genrich. But when it came to the descriptions and accusations against Rivera and Spitzer-Rubenstein, he felt the animosity was less about political parties.
“You know, I think there are definitely some racial and religious overtones here that certainly have come out, not just at the hearing, but in some of the blog posts and other kinds of social media accusations that have been spread leading up to this,” said Spreitzer.
The invited speakers
Kaardal — who used the term “The Wisconsin Five” to separate out the five urban areas that received the largest portion of the grant money for election security — was also a past secretary and treasurer of the Minnesota Republican Party.
Last month he was admonished by U.S. District Court Judge James Boasberg and referred for potential discipline over his filing of a suit in an attempt to invalidate the election outcome. The judge viewed it as deeply flawed “political grandstanding.”
The second speaker was Brown County Clerk Sandy Juno, who said her problems with the city began during the first pandemic election in April. She accused Genrich of “locking down” city hall and opening only two polling locations and calling for people to vote by mail. “We do not go out and solicit disadvantaged people to vote absentee,” she said. Juno is a former Brown County Republican Party chair, involved with the party for the past 25 years with “extensive experience in campaigns and political party activities at the local, state, and national level,” according to her online bio.
The last three of the five speakers were citizens who the final speaker — Elizabeth Rankin — admitted were acting together to perform tasks that, from her own descriptions, caused some interference and disruption at the Central Count facility. Rankin said these actions were necessary to root out suspicious behavior regarding how ballots were transported, sorted and fed into machines.
She claimed she had to leave her assigned area because she saw ballots being jammed. “I was questioning how much education they had on how they ran the ballots through.”
One of the speakers’ major complaints was the amount of access they had to get close up to ballots being processed — and they spoke of a mistrust, primarily accusing Rivera and Spitzer-Rubenstein of usurping authority and making observers feel uncomfortable.
The Green Bay Mayor’s Office statement counters much of the testimony from the hearing, stating that never were any ballots in the custody of anyone outside of city staff, that the $1.6 million grant award paid for assistance input and insight, but “never had access to ballots, computers, storage, equipment or the like.”
Altering future elections
One of the most contentious battlegrounds in Wisconsin state government this 2021 session is election reform. This issue makes it to the top of the state agenda despite a deadly pandemic that has destroyed lives, jobs and economic security and after a year of continual calls for racial and economic justice in the wake of more high-profile police shootings.
While the notice of the hearing simply listed the topic of “General Election Review: Invited Speakers Only,” it became clear from a slide presentation by Kaardal that quoted emails showing disagreements between former clerk Kris Teske and the mayor’s office that the focus had become Green Bay after its election officials had quickly complied with an open records request, giving those emails to a Republican representative.
The three Democratic members of the nine-member committee were not in the room for the hearing. This is because most of the committee members and participants refused to wear masks, other than the Legislative Council employee and Rep. Joe Sanfelippo (R-New Berlin). Therefore the Democratic members could not question the speakers. (Many Democrats have been watching meetings virtually because they are worried about the refusal of many Republican staff and members to wear masks.) One of the members, Rep. Lisa Subeck (D-Madison) posted a photo of the committee meeting on Twitter to illustrate why she was watching, rather than attending, the hearing .Assembly members are not permitted to participate virtually under Vos’ rules.
Today’s meeting of the Assembly Committee on Campaigns and elections. This is why my @WIAssemblyDems colleagues and I will be watching on @WisconsinEye. Note: Legislative Council staff and just one GOP legislator wore masks. All other @WIAssemblyGOP members did not #WearAMask. pic.twitter.com/M2GCfH14R9
— Lisa Subeck (@LisaSubeck) March 10, 2021
The absence of critical or even clarifying questions also furthered the one-sided narrative, with the six Republicans only asking friendly, non-probing questions of the invited guests.
Spreitzer, who also had another committee meeting overlapping the Elections committee, says the very specific question he would have liked to have asked — had he been in the room or allowed to participate virtually — is if any of the speakers testifying saw anything illegal happen.
“Did anyone see anything that actually changed a single vote? That prevented a single legitimate vote from being cast or caused a single illegitimate vote to be cast? If the answer is ‘never,’ as it appears to be, then all we have is innuendo.
“Unless there’s a specific allegation that that can be investigated, it comes down to the fact that people got to vote, people’s votes were counted, we found out who won the election,” Spreitzer concludes. “And now, people who didn’t like that outcome are just trying to cast doubt on it without any evidence.”