The Assembly continued its partisan “investigation” into the 2020 presidential elections with a third invite-only hearing before the Assembly Committee on Campaigns and Elections on Wednesday.
While Democrats and voting access advocacy groups have labeled past hearings a “sham,” the answers from the sole invited guest were in marked contrast to the first two hearings that featured Republicans, many with no expertise, advancing conspiracy theories, anecdotal tales and unsubstantiated accusations of fraud.
The guest was nonpartisan Wisconsin Elections Commission Administrator Meagan Wolfe, who remained pleasant over more than two hours of non-stop questioning, despite queries resembling a cross-examination on a witness stand. She noted at the outset that Wisconsin is one week away from its fifth election during a pandemic. But that was not the focus of the committee’s inquiry.
The questions and statements made by Republican members of the committee continued a crusade to prove that something illegal had occurred during the presidential election in the state’s five largest cities — particularly Green Bay — that accepted a private grant to help run their elections in a pandemic. (A point generally overlooked during questioning was that roughly 200 municipalities, big and small, throughout Wisconsin were awarded grants from the same private group.)
Wolfe kept her comments strictly to factual information and her procedural knowledge, despite leading questions from committee members, who at times attempted to catch her — unsuccessfully — contradicting previous information.
“WEC was not involved in municipalities applying for, or receiving, private grant funds, nor do the statutes give WEC authority to weigh in on such municipal matters,” Wolfe said at the start of the hearing. “Whether statutes should be added to regulate private election grants in the future is up to the Legislature to decide.”
This was the first elections committee meeting since the Assembly voted along partisan lines last week to direct the committee to “investigate the administration of elections in Wisconsin, focusing in particular on elections conducted after January 1, 2019.” That resolution gave this committee the power to subpoena testimony and documents as its investigation moves forward.
The Assembly resolution also included unsubstantiated claims presented as facts: “the integrity of our electoral process has been jeopardized by election officials who, either through willful disregard or reckless neglect, have failed to adhere to our election laws by, at various times, ignoring, violating, and encouraging noncompliance with bright-line rules established by the statutes and regulations governing the administration of elections in Wisconsin.”
The nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau has also been asked by Republicans to investigate the state election process. Notably the Republican-controlled state Senate, which participated only in the first hearing in December, has backed away from the Assembly process.
Debra Cronmiller, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, finds it concerning that the committee continues to hold hearings with only invited guests and also is not accepting written comments from the public, adding that “many others likely could have positively contributed to the conversation and many would have been able to contribute the municipal perspective on election administration, the need for additional funding during a pandemic, etc.”
The process — the worst he’s seen from a committee in more than two decades of advocacy — is a farce and lacks credibility, says Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause in Wisconsin. He wonders if the committee members are “all afraid to hear an opinion that might differ from the one that they have going into the hearing.”
Heck was glad to see the third hearing as providing information rather than wild conspiracy theories fed by talk radio and right-wing pundits — which was how he characterized the first two. He credits Wolfe with giving more of an introductory “tutorial on the Wisconsin Elections Commission, how it works and how they interact with local municipalities … how they get money and how it is dispersed” for the legislators.
That may serve a purpose. Watching the hearing, Cronmiller was surprised by lines of questioning that revealed a lack of knowledge on the election process. “I am always struck by how little some of our elected officials seem to know about the laws that are in place currently,” she says. “Local administration of elections is in statute. The assertion, numerous times, that WEC should have a bigger hand in training and recruiting poll workers actually is not what our statutes indicate. This also applies to some of the questions regarding WEC’s role in directing or overseeing the acceptance of private funds to help municipalities administer their elections.”
While cries of election fraud seem to be dying down among the public, Heck expects that Republicans’ 14 election bills — primarily designed to make it more difficult to vote or to give the GOP an advantage — will move forward, and the committee is seeking justification for voter-suppression measures.
“I get the sense that this is a fool’s errand,” says Heck of the investigation and the bills. “There’s no bipartisan support, and if their election bills pass, the governor will just veto them. They don’t have a veto-proof majority in either chamber, so that’s what’s gonna happen.” He does expect, however, that Republican candidates for governor in 2022 will use the bills as a campaign issue.
Wolfe frequently praised the clerks statewide who administer elections — particularly during the difficulties of a pandemic — and said that “nothing in state law prohibits the use of consultants by municipal or county clerks,” adding, “Local officials are always looking for ways to improve efficiency and services to their communities.”
Rep. Joe Sanfelippo (R-New Berlin) asked Wolfe why the Elections Commission favored large cities.
“But again, my question is, why only the biggest? Are you saying that the WEC is only concerned with where the majority of the votes come from, and not any of the other 1,800 plus municipalities who, on a proportional level, still are going to be struggling on how they’re getting their votes in? And so if a resource comes to WEC … why are you only concerned with helping Milwaukee, Kenosha, Racine, Green Bay and those? Is it common for WEC to be contacted by outside vendors who want to help and then you only decide who gets recommended access to that vendor or not?”
Localities of different sizes require different kinds of information, Wolfe explained. The jurisdictions that requested help, which Sanfelippo listed plus Madison, had, by far, the largest volume of absentee ballots. Other questions drawn from emails and other records shared with the committee by WEC only applied to larger jurisdictions that utilize Central Count sites on Election Day. She assured him that WEC interacts with all jurisdictions and addresses any concerns and needs.
Wolfe also said that former Brown County Clerk Sandy Juno, a Republican and former party leader who testified that the Green Bay election was a “mess” at the last hearing, had called the Elections Commission with concerns about Green Bay’s clerk being on leave and the role being taken by an election observer tied to the group that awarded the private grants. Wolfe said she took the concerns “very seriously” and when Juno had not answered calls from WEC, Wolfe personally phoned Green Bay’s deputy clerk as its clerk was on leave.
“I reached out to the deputy clerk on both occasions and at no time was I presented with any information that they believed that something was happening outside of their authority in that jurisdiction,” Wolfe testified.
No sign of fraud
A number of other questions from Republican committee members were phrased to get Wolfe to say she agreed with their assertions about wrongdoing, but she didn’t take the bait. Pushed on potential fraud, Wolfe shot down that assertion.
Rep. Mark Spreitzer (D-Beloit) asked Wolfe to characterize how the election administration worked before and after the November presidential election.
“I can point to multiple data points to support … clerks conducting the election, certifying the election and not finding any discrepancies,” she replied. “I think we could also point to the many lawsuits that happened throughout the course of the last year, and how there was no wrongdoing established or determined.”
She also mapped out the processes that assured accuracy for the legislators.
“Clerks are required to use our statewide voter registration database to track every single absentee ballot so we can see when a ballot is issued, when a ballot is received. We have an automated technological process called reconciliation, where it’s flagged for us if there’s any sort of anomaly in the data,” explained Wolfe, noting that if any count of ballots was off by even one ballot, that would be flagged and require investigation.
She then laid out the four times all the results are certified — three at the municipal, county and statewide levels in the weeks after an election. She explained how the process involves going through polls books and comparing the number of signatures, absentee ballots issued and making sure all the counts align. “We did not find any major discrepancies during any of those levels of certification,” said Wolfe.
In a final step, WEC staff conduct a post-election voting equipment audit, double checking random ballots from all the types of equipment in use in jurisdictions across the state, to ensure that the paper ballots have the same result as the machine tally. For 2020, because of questions, Wolfe said they took additional steps for additional checks on voting machines.
“And what the audit shows is that, again, those results were incredibly accurate at the local level,” Wolfe said. “So relying on those data points, I’m able to determine that at the local level, I think we ran a very successful election. And I can also say secure, because we’re the ones that secure the statewide data [and] we have state of the art, trailblazing technology that protects every single Wisconsinite’s data in our state registry.”
Citing a study from 2005 led by former President Jimmy Carter, Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt (R-Fond du Lac) said that it was clear that voting in person was less open to fraud than voting absentee. Wolfe responded that many things have changed over the past 16 years ( “I was barely an adult then,” she added) and that checking out an absentee ballot to a voter is now a rigorous and verified process.
Sanfelippo said his top concern continues to be the role of the consultant in Green Bay, particularly at Central Count on Election Day. Committee chair Rep. Janel Brandtjen (R-Menomonee Falls) indicated an interest in moving forward with future hearings on related topics.
That is not necessarily good news to opponents of the Republicans’ election ‘reform’ ideas and bills.
“Republicans on this committee have been using these hearings to smear public officials and to hurl unfounded accusations to sow doubt among the citizenry about the legitimacy of our elections,” says Matt Rothschild, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. “This is extremely toxic to our democracy, as we saw on Jan. 6.”
After the hearing’s conclusion, the three Democrats on the committee — Reps. Spreitzer, Lisa Subeck (D-Madison) and Jodi Emerson (D–Eau Claire) — put out a statement characterizing Wolfe’s testimony as a “data-driven approach that stuck to the facts and provided the clarity that has been missing in prior hearings.”
They also took her testimony as evidence that the 200 municipalities that received private grant funding from Tech and Civic Life — or as the GOP committee members labeled them due to one of the funders, the “Facebook” or “Zuckerburg” grants — was legal and it was up to municipalities to determine if they should accept the resource.
“It is clear that local municipalities are empowered to administer their local elections with the resources that local decision makers approve,” their statement read. “Administrator Wolfe’s testimony demonstrated that Republican conspiracy theories based on half-truths and innuendo do not hold up when actual facts and expertise are brought forward.”
And after graciously praising Wolfe for giving up more than two hours of her time just one week before another election, Brandtjen ended the meeting on a unifying note: “We tell everybody to get out and vote!”