How undermining elections became central to the GOP plan

October 28, 2021 7:00 am
Right-wing protesters gather outside the Maricopa County Elections Department on Nov. 4, 2020, demanding that all ballots for Donald Trump be counted. Inside the building, election workers were busy counting hundreds of thousands of ballots. Photo by Jerod MacDonald-Evoy | Arizona Mirror

Right-wing protesters gather outside the Maricopa County Elections Department on Nov. 4, 2020, demanding that all ballots for Donald Trump be counted. Inside the building, election workers were busy counting hundreds of thousands of ballots. Photo by Jerod MacDonald-Evoy | Arizona Mirror

Harassing election officials and working to undermine the integrity of Wisconsin elections has become a central part of Republicans’ electoral strategy. 

On Tuesday, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos told reporters that it is “possible if not likely” that his election investigator, former Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman, will interrogate Meagan Wolfe, the beleaguered administrator of the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC), even before Attorney General Josh Kaul’s request to block that interview is heard by a judge.

In his press conference, Vos claimed that he has grave concerns arising from the Legislative Audit Bureau report on the 2020 election, which found no evidence of wrongdoing and which Republican state Sen. Robert Cowles (R-Allouez), who co-chairs the Legislature’s Audit Committee, summed up by saying it had proved that the 2020 election in Wisconsin was “safe and secure.” 

“Basically, WEC is being mismanaged,” Vos said, putting his own spin on the report. “And there were major problems during the course of the 2020 election.” 

Republicans seem to figure they can get away with distorting the audit bureau’s findings because most people won’t actually read the report for themselves. Specifically, Vos pointed to elections officials in Madison who “wouldn’t even turn over the basic ballots to have the Legislative Audit Bureau — totally nonpartisan, totally respected — even do their job.” But, as the LAB report itself states, the clerk in Madison who didn’t turn over those ballots was merely following guidance from the U.S. Department of Justice, which warned that she could be violating the federal Civil Rights Act if she gave up physical custody of election records. “In part as a result of this guidance from the Department of Justice, the City of Madison clerk did not allow us to physically handle election records,” the LAB report explains. 

Rather than run afoul of federal law, the Madison clerk offered auditors the chance to view the ballots without taking physical custody of them. The auditors didn’t take her up on that offer. 

The audit bureau report made a series of recommendations for improving election processes and training, but it also noted a high level of satisfaction with WEC training among local election clerks, and found no evidence of significant problems with voting machines nor discrepancies in the vote count.

And yet, four days after the LAB released its report, Wisconsin Senate leaders announced they were launching yet another investigation of the 2020 election, claiming, “The audit findings released on October 21st paint a grim picture of the Wisconsin Election Commission (WEC) and their careless administration of election law in Wisconsin.” 

For election workers, who managed to pull off a safe, secure election in the midst of a pandemic, then slogged through recounts while angry, anti-mask supporters of the former president breathed down their necks, the continuing GOP attacks just add insult to injury.  

Republicans, who keep launching more election investigations even as they simultaneously scramble to re-rig one of the nation’s most gerrymandered partisan voting maps, claim they are motivated by deep concerns about good government.

But here’s the thing: They are already on the record laying out their plan to undermine voter confidence in elections as part of an explicit political strategy. 

At a Nov. 21, 2019 meeting of the Republican National Lawyers Association in Wisconsin — secretly recorded and posted on YouTube by the Democratic opposition research group American Bridge — then-Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald explained how the Republicans’ move to get rid of the nonpartisan Government Accountability Board back when Scott Walker was governor has benefited the GOP. Fitzgerald gave a shout-out to Republican lawyer Eric McLeod, for his help in eliminating the GAB and replacing it with the WEC, whose members are partisan appointees, and where “we have much more control.” “There’s a lot less behind-the-scenes stuff,” Fitzgerald said of the WEC, which was designed to be plagued by gridlock with its three Republican and three Democratic appointees. “But that doesn’t mean you can take your eye off ’em — it can be very frustrating.” 

Meagan Wolfe can certainly attest to that.

The featured speaker at the Republican National Lawyers Association event in 2019 was Trump campaign lawyer Justin Clark, who talked about the importance of focusing on voter fraud — a phenomenon considerably less common than UFO sightings — to Republican electoral victories.

“The strides you have with respect to Election Day voting and the mechanics of voting in Wisconsin are miles ahead of most other battleground states,” Clark told the group. “ID rules, voting machines, the way you structure your elections, the entire process here has really done a complete 180 in the last 20 years, which is a good thing, because I’m going to say over and over again, Wisconsin is the tipping point to 270 [Electoral College votes]. If we win Wisconsin, Donald Trump is re-elected.”

Clark then delivered some good news about the “huge differences” between the elections of 2016 and 2020, starting with the elimination in 2018 of a federal court’s consent decree that had limited the Republican National Committee’s ability to challenge voters’ qualifications and target “ballot security.” The decree, Politico reported at the time, came out of a 1982 lawsuit over Republican voter-suppression tactics, including targeting African-American voters in mailings warning of serious penalties for violating election laws and posting armed guards at the polls in minority neighborhoods.


The end of the consent decree, Clark crowed, “frees the RNC up to coordinate” creating a network of national and local Republican groups focused relentlessly on voter fraud.

Clark did not straight-up concede that claims of voter fraud, which have been repeatedly disproven, are baloney. But he did acknowledge that it was hard to get the media to take the stories seriously. That is, until former President Donald Trump and his barrage of disinformation on social media really turned the tide. “We’ve got a guy who’s committed to this, who is able to short circuit media attention on stuff and just say things — and we’re gonna be able to highlight these things that are really, really, finally, the biggest difference.”

“We’ve all seen the tweets about voter fraud and blah, blah, blah,” Clark told the Republican lawyers’ group. “Every time we’re in with him, he asks, ‘What are we doing about voter fraud? What do we do about voter fraud?’”

“Which is great for guys who are looking for budget approval on stuff,” Clark said to appreciative laughs. “Point is, he’s committed to this. He believes in it, and he’ll do whatever it takes to make sure that it’s successful.”

Trump, it turned out, was not successful. State and federal courts dismissed more than 50 lawsuits presented by Trump and his allies challenging the election or its outcome. 

But the infrastructure Clark was crowing about in 2019 is still in place. Wisconsin has led the nation in its restrictive voter ID laws and other voter suppression efforts, which specifically target voters of color, low-income voters and students. And now the emphasis on undermining elections, discouraging voters and making false claims of fraud has become central to the GOP strategy.

“It’s going to be a much bigger program, a much more aggressive program, a much better funded program,” Clark said. We’re now running downhill a little bit more, and we’ve got the resources to do it.”

That’s bad news for election workers all over Wisconsin. It’s even worse news for our democracy.

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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She graduated from Yale University in 1990, where she ran track and edited the campus magazine The New Journal. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.