Election Day 2020 in Argyle, WI | Henry Redman
Legislative auditors released a report on Friday that found the 2020 presidential election was conducted with minimal errors, contradicting Republican complaints.
However, the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau did make a number of recommendations for administrative rules and legislative changes that are likely to continue the fight over the state’s election administration.
The report comes nearly a year after the election as Republicans in Wisconsin and across the country have repeatedly spread conspiracy theories and baseless accusations about the election’s results. Included in the recommendations are changes to policies and laws that have been central to the Republican claims of fraud.
While indulging Republican complaints about some policies, the report affirms what recounts, lawsuits and other audits have found — which is that the 2020 presidential election was conducted safely and securely and Joe Biden won Wisconsin by nearly 21,000 votes. The report found that there were rare instances of people voting twice or absentee ballots being counted after a person had died, but not nearly enough to sway the results. The report found that 11 people may have had votes counted after they died, eight people still serving felony sentences cast a ballot and 24 people had two active voter registration files.
It also dismissed Republican accusations of problems with voting machines — some of which have been especially farfetched — showing that the machines used to count votes across the state worked properly and weren’t tampered with.
After the report was released, some Republicans said it showed that the election was conducted securely but indicated a need for reforms to the system.
“Given the importance of this audit and the length of this report, I intend to thoroughly review its findings and recommendations over the following days, but generally speaking, this audit affirms much of what we expected,” state Sen. Robert Cowles (R-Allouez), who co-chairs the Legislative Audit Committee which commissioned the report, said in a statement. “Many of the findings show that WEC and its staff are not complying with state statute on several fronts, from clerk training to verification of voters and voter registration. I plan to work closely with my legislative colleagues to address the recommendations in this audit, and I expect to have a hearing on this audit soon.”
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But Democrats warned that Republicans will use the report’s recommendations as cover for passing laws that restrict Wisconsinites ability to vote.
“This report confirms that Wisconsin’s 2020 elections were fair, secure and accurate,” Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz (D-Oshkosh) said in a statement. “The report also contradicts the disingenuous lies legislative Republicans have peddled for the last eleven months in their attempt to breed distrust in our democracy. There is no doubt legislative Republicans will try to exploit these recommendations to hold onto political power. The people of Wisconsin should see those maneuvers for what they are: a desperate attempt to hold onto power at any cost.”
“Instead of targeting and intimidating our local clerks or limiting the freedom to vote in Wisconsin, lawmakers should expand voter access to the ballot box and ensure our local clerks have the full support they need,” he continued.
In the months after the election, legislative Republicans passed a number of changes to the state’s election laws, all of which were vetoed by Gov. Tony Evers.
The audit bureau departed from traditional protocol by not sharing a draft review of the report with the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC) or the local elections officials contacted during the audit, citing confidentiality concerns. The WEC, which was heavily involved during the audit and the subject of the reports recommendations, said it had concerns with this break from tradition and had found errors that could have been corrected before release if it had been able to review a draft. Commission staff noted, however, that the report confirms the election was conducted securely.
While WEC Administrator Meagan Wolfe said in a statement that the failure to share the draft report with the commission was a disappointment, others across the state criticized the Audit Bureau for that decision and using the report to attack the bipartisan commission.
“The report found nothing to demonstrate, and did not conclude, that the results of the elections were invalid. It presented no evidence of sweeping improprieties or calculated partisan maneuvers that distorted the outcome of the elections. None of that is in this report. Nothing of that kind,” Wisconsin Democracy Campaign Executive Director Matt Rothschild said. “Instead of finding massive illegal voting, the LAB went after the Wisconsin Elections Commission in a biased, one-sided, and unprecedented way.”
The auditors recommended that the WEC should adopt a number of new administrative rules to make election administration stricter or codify policies that have been in place for years. Administrative rules must be approved by a Republican-held legislative committee so any rule proposals from the WEC could be quickly struck down by Republicans. If the WEC ignores the recommendations and continues policies anyway, it risks lawsuits that could be strengthened by the results of the audit.
The direction to make new rules could set up a fight over policies that Republicans themselves created but have since pointed to as sources of potential fraud. For example, in 2016 Republicans directed local elections officials to fill in missing information from witness addresses on absentee ballot envelopes. Over the past year, this practice has been the target of Republican complaints and legislation to forbid even minor corrections.
The policy allowed clerks to add a missing zip code, state or municipality to an absentee ballot. This policy was in place when Donald Trump won the 2016 election and Republicans did not raise any concerns then. After the election, Trump challenged this policy in a lawsuit but the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled 4-3 that such a complaint would have had to be brought before the election, not afterward.
Taking a random sample of nearly 15,000 absentee ballots, the report found that more than 1,000 had partial addresses.
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The audit recommends that the WEC should establish a rule to codify clerks’ ability to correct partial addresses, which would allow Republicans to quickly end the policy. It also recommended that legislators should change statutes to clarify exactly what components of an address are required.
Another longtime election practice that the audit targets is the use of drop boxes for absentee ballots. Prior to 2020, drop boxes were already in use but became especially popular because of the challenges of voting during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite their common use in municipalities across the state — the report shows that at least 245 municipal clerks across the state used drop boxes in 2020 — Republicans have pointed to them as a source of potential fraud, mostly in heavily Democratic cities. A lawsuit in the Republican stronghold of Waukesha County that would clarify whether or not drop boxes are legal is currently pending. State statute doesn’t say anything about the legality of drop boxes. However, advocates for voters with disability rights have called for continued availability, if not expansion, of dropboxes, arguing it provides greater access for voters who may struggle to vote at the polls on Election Day, or to find transportation to clerks’ offices.
The report recommends that the WEC establish a rule to allow the use of drop boxes — again giving Republicans an avenue for quickly dispensing with the tool.
The release of the report ends one of two continuing reviews of the 2020 election that were started at the request of Republicans. The other, blatantly partisan review, is being conducted by former Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman and has been repeatedly criticized by Democrats for being unprofessional, biased and undermining faith in voting and democratic institutions. Gableman and members of his staff have said, without evidence, they believe Trump won the election.
Gableman, who was hired by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) with a minimum $680,000 budget, has said he doesn’t understand how election administration works and has made a number of errors as he conducts his review. Gableman has also gone back and forth over whether or not he will require local and state officials to testify.
On Thursday, Attorney General Josh Kaul filed for a restraining order against Gableman in Dane County Circuit Court that would prevent him from enforcing a subpoena against WEC Administrator Meagan Wolfe. Kaul’s motion stated that Gableman’s subpoenas “suffer multiple legal defects and should be invalidated on those legal bases,” and exceed the authority he has as a special counsel to the Legislature.
Gableman’s partisan investigation is focused on many of the same issues as the audit but Vos, who has repeatedly made contradictory statements about the 2020 elections and is fighting to keep records of Gableman’s review hidden from the public, has continued to insist it’s necessary to debunk concerns raised by Republican voters who believe the election was tainted because Republican officials told them it was.
In a statement, Vos said that the Audit Bureau’s report showing the election was safe and secure is a sign that Gableman’s review must continue.
“This audit proves why further investigation is necessary and it is imperative that Justice Gableman continues to look into what led to these violations in election law,” Vos said. “It’s extremely disappointing that Governor Evers, Attorney General Kaul, and Democrats in the Legislature continue to try and thwart efforts to ensure election integrity and have actively been attempting to cover-up obvious irregularities.”
The Gableman review was initially supposed to end this month but now Vos has said it could go until the end of the year without any clarification on how that may impact its cost to Wisconsin taxpayers.
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