At center of partisan attacks, WEC administrator pushes back
Wisconsin Elections Commissioner Meagan Wolfe speaks during a 2021 legislative hearing. (Screenshot | WisEye)
Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC) Administrator Meagan Wolfe defended the agency at a news conference Monday, pushing back as the commission faces allegations of criminal wrongdoing from a county sheriff who hasn’t actually referred charges, admonishments from the state’s Legislative Audit Bureau, continued investigations from Republicans still aggrieved over the result of the 2020 presidential election and calls from Republican legislative leadership for her own resignation.
As Republicans continue to undermine the results of the 2020 election nearly a year after it was held — which recounts, audits, court decisions and investigations have repeatedly affirmed was won by Joe Biden — Wolfe said the state’s election was safe and secure and that neither she nor the commission would give in to political attacks.
“Being nonpartisan means that when somebody wants or expects me to do something that is motivated by partisan politics, that I have to stand strong and I have to rise above those attempts to sway me,” Wolfe said. “It also means that sometimes partisans from either side of the aisle are upset with me simply because I did my job. And my job is to implement the directives of the bipartisan commission. And my job is also to correct the record and to provide facts to the public when there are baseless partisan claims that are made in an attempt to undermine the integrity of our elections.”
Last week, Racine County Sheriff Chris Schmaling called a news conference to announce the results of a months-long investigation into voting at a Mount Pleasant nursing home. Schmaling and an investigator at the sheriff’s office alleged the WEC had violated the law and facilitated illegal voting when the commission voted unanimously in March 2020 not to send special voting deputies into nursing homes to help residents vote.
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The press conference was held even though no charges have been filed, or even referred, to the Racine County District Attorney. Schmaling called for a statewide investigation into the matter from Attorney General Josh Kaul.
Special voting deputies are deployed in pairs by local elections clerks to enter residential care facilities and assist with voting. They can be joined by an election observer from each major political party and are required by state law to attempt to enter the facility twice to assist people with their ballots. If the deputies can’t enter the facility on either occasion, those residents use the normal absentee ballot process.
The Racine County investigation report alleges that by voting to forgo the two attempted visits, the six WEC commissioners broke the law. Once this happened, according to the report, illegal votes were cast when nursing home staff assisted residents on their own — including residents who the sheriff’s investigator said were cognitively impaired.
The sheriff’s investigator said that cognitive impairment meant the residents’ family members didn’t believe they were capable of voting, but the right to vote can only be taken away after a judge declares the person to be incompetent.
“Only a judge can take away an eligible voter’s right to vote if the person is deemed ‘incapable of understanding the objective of the elective process,’” the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin said in a news release Monday. “Having a diagnosis, needing assistance or a family member thinking a person should not vote is not enough to deny someone of their right to cast a ballot. It is also offensive to insinuate that the act of assisting a voter to cast their ballot is manipulation or somehow preying on some of Wisconsin’s voters who are most vulnerable to voter suppression.”
At the time the elections commissioners voted to go without the required two visits and move straight to the regular absentee ballot process, the COVID-19 pandemic was just beginning and most visitors were not being allowed into nursing homes, even as that spring’s April 7 election was already underway. While the Racine investigator said other people were allowed to visit the home over the past year, Wolfe said the commission doesn’t have the power to force privately owned facilities to let the special voting deputies inside and didn’t have any say over who qualified as an “essential” visitor.
“I think it really highlights a lack of understanding about how special voting deputies work, in normal circumstances, let alone how that process works during a pandemic,” Wolfe said. “I think it overlooks the fact that special voting deputies were not being allowed into facilities last year. They were not being allowed into facilities as recently as this spring. And I also think it overlooks the fact that only a court can decide that somebody is incompetent to vote. I mean, the Commission cannot force facilities, private facilities, to allow special voting deputies or anyone into a private care facility. And clerks certainly can’t strong-arm their way into a facility that is denying them access.”
Wolfe added that if the WEC hadn’t made this decision, residents of nursing homes would have been disenfranchised because there wouldn’t have been enough time for the absentee ballot process to be completed.
“I also think that the Commission’s decision allowed voters in those care facilities to be able to participate,” she said. “The election had already started. Ballots had already gone out. If clerks had continued to try to accomplish their visits to facilities that they knew were not going to allow them in, what that would have meant is those voters in those care facilities would not have been able to vote. That’s not fair. So I think the Commission’s action ensured that those voters had the same opportunity as anyone else to receive a ballot in time, to cast it in time for it to be returned to be counted.”
Following Schmaling’s press conference, a number of Republican leaders in the state Legislature including Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) have called for Wolfe’s resignation. Vos, who represents part of Racine County, said on the TV program UpFront he was also looking at calling for the resignations of the six commission members.
“So hopefully, we can begin the process of changing who runs the agency, making sure that they follow the rules, so that by 2022 — this isn’t about 2020, it’s about 2022 — guaranteeing that whoever wins the election does so fair and square,” Vos said.
Wolfe said she believes calls for her resignation are politics at their worst and that her job entails carrying out the decisions made by the six appointed commissioners — which she believes she has done well.
“I think in some ways that they think I’m an easy target. I’m not,” she said. “I think that anybody that’s looked at the integrity of the work that I’ve done, the dedication that I’ve given to this position, the support I’ve provided to our heroic local election officials. I don’t think that the claims have any basis and I do think that this is partisan politics at its worst, but at the same time, I have an obligation as the state’s nonpartisan chief election official to rise above it, to focus on the real work that we have ahead of us, because we’re in a busy part of the election cycle. We’re headed into the 2022 election cycle. And so I think this is politics and that’s just not something that I’m able to or willing to engage in.”
In addition to attacking the WEC, Vos is directing the much-maligned partisan review of the 2020 election by former Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman. Vos has said that the investigation, which was initially supposed to end this month, will go into next year.
Late last month, the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau released a report on its own investigation into the 2020 election. The report states that the election was held safely and securely, but made a number of recommendations for changes to the rules and laws that guide election administration in the state.
The WEC, which wasn’t able to review and correct the report prior to its publication — a practice that is standard for other agencies subject to an audit by the body — has said that there are errors in the report that should have been addressed. Wolfe said Monday that the commission plans to address the report in a Dec. 1 meeting to correct the record and make a “good faith” effort to respond to the concerns raised and make changes to how elections are run.
Last week, Republicans in the state Senate used the audit bureau’s report as the impetus for yet another investigation into the election. Wolfe said the WEC is willing to cooperate with investigations, but that the results of the election have repeatedly been confirmed through a number of processes.
“We’re always glad to cooperate and provide data to provide information on how our elections work,” she said. “But I think that we’ve had in addition to the Legislative Audit Bureau’s report, which showed that we had a secure, fair and accurate election, we’ve also had the canvass processes that happen after each election where the totals and the process has to be verified by each municipality, then by each county, then by the state. There are also our post-election voting equipment audits. Again, you can watch those in your community where we randomly select voting equipment around the states and they compare the machine totals to the paper ballot totals in communities around the state. And you know, then, of course, there were recounts in our largest counties here in the state of Wisconsin, and all that happened before these additional reviews.”
“So we’re always glad to provide information that will help answer voters’ questions about the election,” Wolfe continued. “And we’re always willing to cooperate as much as we’re able to under law with those investigations as well, but I think there’s been a great deal of review on our election.”
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