A tale of two elections
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Green Bay’s city attorney conducted a thorough investigation of the city’s 2020 elections and released her conclusions this week in a 19-page memo that stands in stark contrast to Republican legislators’ charges.
“Unfortunately, the election has been the center of extensive misinformation and unfounded allegations,” Green Bay City Attorney Vanessa R. Chavez wrote. “The purpose of this memorandum is to provide an overview of the various actions and activities of the City of Green Bay with respect to the 2020 Election season, as well as address the specific allegations which have been made casting doubt on the integrity of the election.”
Chavez concluded her memo: “No issues affecting the integrity of the election have been found.”
In the course of compiling her report, Chavez gathered information from 22 city employees, offering any who worked at the city’s central count location — which Republicans have focused on as the key problem — the opportunity to give feedback. Externally she interviewed members of the convention center staff where the central count was located in November, staff at the Wisconsin Elections Commission and Michael Spitzer-Rubenstein of the National Vote at Home Institute. Spitzer-Rubenstein has been accused by election committee Republicans of illegally taking away authority from the city clerk’s office.
Chavez requested conversations with former City Clerk Kris Teske — who has been dubbed an “election superhero” by those same Republicans, although she took leaves of absence intermittently in September and October before going on leave continuously on Oct. 23, shortly before the election. She then resigned in January and refused to talk to either the city attorney or the elections committee. (An unlikely GOP hero, she put forward ideas Republicans fought such as an all mail-in election and having voters declare themselves to be permanent absentee voters to ease requirements.)
Chavez reported that she also reached out to one of the most vocal critics of the Green Bay election — former Brown County Clerk Sandy Juno, a local Republican Party leader who came to the central count as an observer, but sought to make changes while she was there and interacted with elections officials even though she was officially only present as an observer. Juno gave lengthy testimony in the Assembly committee but refused to speak to the city, as did all Brown County employees contacted who had been advised to only respond to open records requests.
Chavez found performance obstacles and serious communication breakdowns. There was a divided effort between the staffs of the clerk and the mayor. But overall her findings paint the picture of a community, elections advisory board and a city staff that went to extreme lengths to pull off the pandemic elections despite a major influx of absentee ballots, frequently changing circumstances, COVID-19 containment measures and the city clerk taking a leave of absence right before the Nov. 3 election.
Spoiler alert: The report concludes the opposite of what Assembly Republicans have been trying to prove, finding that the municipal clerk’s authority, vested in her by state statute, was not usurped by outside groups including the Center for Tech and Civic Life.
“…once the pandemic reached Wisconsin, the landscape changed and more people were required to navigate the ever-changing circumstances,” Chavez writes. “The result of the April 2020 election was clean and uniform with the City’s prior practices. However, the hardships on the community proved substantial. As a result of these failures, the City of Green Bay Common Council was interested in ensuring City staff were well placed to be able to adapt to changing circumstances, and the administration of the elections remained a topic of discussion for the remainder of the election season.”
Open records requests
Legislative Republicans’ quest to find mistakes and misdeeds to back up the party’s assertions that the 2020 presidential election was rife with fraud — a fact disproven repeatedly in court, by clerks and by the Wisconsin Elections Commission — began broadly looking at all the cities in Wisconsin.
Over the past several months, the focus of the Assembly elections committee has narrowed to a laser focus on Green Bay and the private nonprofit Center for Tech and Civic Life that gave grants to municipalities all across the state. Republicans have forwarded more than a dozen elections bills, most of them making it harder to vote, and some of them based on their narrative about the Green Bay election.
Republicans peppered their inquiry at the Assembly election committee with lines taken from thousands of pages of open records obtained from the City of Green Bay by Rep. Shae Sortwell (R-Two Rivers), whose district is south of Green Bay. His requests alone (there were many others) involved 20 batches of emails, some hundreds of pages each. The Assembly voted along partisan lines to give subpoena powers to the committee to investigate the 2020 election.
One request by the committee — that was repeated by then-Assembly Elections Chair Ron Tusler (R-Harrison) — sought everything that had anything to do with consultant Michael Spitzer-Rubenstein, who has become a target of intense interest for rightwing media, including files from Spitzer-Rubenstein’s laptop. Many documents released in response show he was deeply involved in some details surrounding the election. Although rather than being a mastermind sabotaging the election to favor Democrats, Spitzer-Rubenstein’s advice centered on such topics as how to set up tables at the central count location to be efficient, staffing levels, early voting office layout and other advice best described as procedural.
The memo from Chavez also discredits another focal point on Spitzer-Rubenstein by Republicans, that he was in control over the keys to the ballroom where the central count was housed and was listed as the point of contact. The records show confusion understandably stemming from inaccurate information on documents with the hotel, but in practice, reports Chavez, Spitzer-Rubenstein never had the keys and the contact information was updated before the election.
Those same records reviewed, in part, by the Examiner show confusion, an extremely overworked staff, tight resources even with the $1.6 million grant from the Center for Tech and Civic Life and involvement in executing the November election in particular that took a great deal of time and dominated the attention of Green Bay Mayor Eric Genrich, his staff, the clerk and legal staffs — to even the city parks workers who were called on to make cough guards on the fly to keep poll workers safe in April to workers from transit, police, housing inspection and many more departments mailing and processing absentee ballots.
After voters endured long lines due to a dearth of polling locations in April, the city council also got involved and formed an ad hoc elections committee, which also participated in planning and, after making additional demands and raising new questions, approved the Center for Tech and Civic Life unanimously. The influx of funds were used to buy such items as a high-speed tabulator and secure drop boxes and video cameras for central count.
The grant paperwork shows the request from Green Bay sought money to improve outreach efforts and training to accommodate the massive increase in people casting absentee ballots or needing curbside voting due to either a disability or COVID-19. There were funds for machinery and supplies, but much of the money spent went toward increasing staffing.
The memo and the city records paint a picture of the sometimes crippling challenges the 2020 elections posed for municipalities, and the major impact caused by a shifting picture of election needs. It shows that for months before the election, pulling off a presidential election in a pandemic became the primary focus of city government.
“There was no way for the City to react to the changes brought on by the pandemic without the infusion of funding, wrote Chavez. “Notably, prior to the pandemic, absentee ballots requested were generally under 3,000, whereas for the August 2020 primary, the requests exceeded 10,000, and for the November general election, the number was approximately 33,000.”
“The Clerk’s Office was overwhelmed and overstressed with the level of work required during 2020, as employees were routinely working well beyond their scheduled work hours just to keep up with their obligations, and with no end in sight,” wrote Chavez.
She also asserted that the rhetoric of the elected Republicans regarding fraud they forecast before the election heightened the concerns and exacerbated problems.
“The traditional amount of attention paid to a presidential election was amplified in 2020 for a number of reasons,” stated Chavez. “The country was still in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic … Such concerns contributed to increased requests for absentee ballots, which in turn resulted in political figures repeatedly making public claims that increased absentee and mail-in voting would lead to widespread voter fraud. Added to these concerns were risks of foreign interference with the election, as well as concerns about voter intimidation and other physical safety risks at polling locations.”
She says the cumulative total of these threats and media attention given to them “created an atmosphere of concern, not only over the safety and security of the election, but also over the legitimacy of the entire election process.”
Citing an effort to be as transparent as possible about the Green Bay election, the city has posted all of the documents requested by legislators and media and interested advocacy groups on its website. They include thousands of emails, contracts, observer logs, room layouts, committee minutes and more, down to excruciating detail, such as a question between the Mayor’s Office and the City Clerk’s Office on the times for trick-or-treating for past Halloweens.
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An area of criticism Republicans raised was the mayor’s chief of staff, Celestine Jeffreys, taking over the clerk’s responsibilities while still employed by the mayor’s office, which is not permitted for an election. The records released, as well as Chavez’s report document a deterioration of collaboration between the two offices, although not a smoking gun or legal violation.
The report states that the staff interviewed confirmed that “all of the consultants they interacted with were merely advisory.”
Chavez stated, “Unfortunately, communication began breaking down between the then-Clerk and the then-Chief of Staff, with the two focusing on different items with very little collaboration … the two were working in silos, with the Chief of Staff not involved in the election administration, and the Clerk having little involvement in implementing the directives of the Committee. The communication breakdowns also began expanding to the departments as a whole, with the two departments not coordinating efforts. This resulted in duplicate work at times, last-minute actions, and much frustration for everyone.”
Jeffreys now serves as the city clerk, although that role during the November election was held by the deputy clerk, who has since left city employment.
Republicans who have raised the alarm about election fraud are already looking to discredit the city attorney’s memo, including right-wing radio host Dan O’Donnell who claimed the memo actually proved wrongdoing, asserting the involvement of others violated state law’s directive that “each municipal clerk has charge and supervision of elections and registration in the municipality.”
Rep. Tusler tweeted that Mayor Genrich’s own attorney provides evidence of his misdeeds” and called it “an election gone wrong.”
What Chavez determined was this: “Despite the difficulty the two departments had communicating, the Law Department has identified no improper action in our review. Instead, our review suggests the Clerk’s Office focused on processing ballots, and the Mayor’s Office provided assistance by way of procuring equipment and materials, and implementing the recommendations of the Ad Hoc Elections Committee.”
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