Republicans continue to use WEC as partisan punching bag in committee hearing
Staff of the Legislative Audit Bureau testify about their report on election administration during the 2020 presidential election. (Screenshot | WisEye)
In a hearing of the Legislative Audit Committee on Tuesday, Republican legislators continued their attacks on the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC) as the commission’s administrator Meagan Wolfe attempted to push back.
Wolfe appeared before the committee to testify and respond to questions about a report into elections administration during the 2020 presidential election by the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau.
Republicans have used the report, which found the 2020 election was conducted safely and securely, to further their claims of election fraud and problems with the election administration. Following the release of the report, Republicans in the Senate announced they’d be opening yet another investigation into the election to further investigate what was discovered in the audit bureau’s investigation.
Wolfe opened her testimony by commending parts of the LAB report and said many of the report’s 30 recommendations for the WEC are common sense and should be easy to implement. But she also tried to push back on what she says are errors and inaccuracies in the report that the commission believes need to be corrected while occasionally clashing with Republicans.
Wolfe told the committee that because the six elections commissioners hadn’t yet met to discuss the report and respond to the recommendations, she wasn’t able to provide any information beyond the facts of what happened and her own personal opinion. The commission is planning to meet on Dec. 1 to discuss the report.
In a heated series of statements, Rep. John Macco (R-Ledgeview), who is reportedly considering a run for governor, said the actions of Wolfe and the WEC were “repugnant.”
“I find it repugnant and insulting for you to start a conversation that says you can’t speak for the team first of all that you couldn’t even get together,” Macco said. “So I just find this whole thing a joke today, and you’ve done nothing to help allay my fears and concerns.”
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Macco also objected to Wolfe’s statements that the WEC hadn’t been given a chance to respond to and correct errors in the report before it was published — an opportunity other state agencies get when audited by the bureau.
“I don’t know what world you come from where you get to have a report and an input on the report of an audit before the audit comes out,” he said. “I’ve never heard of such a thing in the businesses that I’ve had, I’ve gotten audited on an annualized basis, and I don’t get the pleasure of sitting down with the SEC, or the DOR or the IRS and have me give opinions as to as to the input of what I’m doing and input on the report before it comes out.”
The standard process for reports by the audit bureau includes giving state agencies a chance to respond pre-publication. The audit bureau said in its report it didn’t do so in this case because it was concerned that if it sent a draft to the entire elections commission, the commission’s staff and the elections clerks who were involved in the investigation, the confidentiality of the draft couldn’t be maintained.
Wolfe, who has been the subject of personal attacks from Republicans following the LAB report and allegations from the Racine County Sheriff that the WEC violated election law, contested Macco’s claims that Wolfe should have done more to respond.
“I’m not sure what you’re implying that I should have done, other than provide the facts about how it works, how elections work,” she said.
Wolfe spent much of her prepared testimony attempting to correct the errors she said are in the report.
The most dramatic error, she said, involves how often the WEC receives data from ERIC, a multi-state organization that coordinates the sharing of information regarding situations such as when a voter moves to or dies in a different state.
The LAB report states that the WEC did not regularly receive all available data.
“WEC did not regularly obtain all types of data from ERIC in recent years,” the report states. “From September 2016 to May 2021, WEC obtained some types of data every two years, but it obtained other types of data once during this period of time.”
The report said the WEC did not regularly request voter data involving voters who may have moved, voted twice in the same election or died. Wolfe said that many of these data sets are only available at certain times in the election cycle or haven’t always been available to ERIC’s member states.
“Unfortunately, the LAB’s discussion of ERIC contains numerous inaccuracies, in particular, the ERIC data … implies that Wisconsin missed many opportunities to obtain that data. This is an error,” Wolfe said, “and perhaps the most significant mistake in the report. The WEC obtains all ERIC data sets when they’re made available to Wisconsin, with the full approval of the Wisconsin Election Commission and in full compliance with statutory requirements. Each ERIC report has specific periods of availability, and several of the reports did not even exist when Wisconsin first joined ERIC.”
The LAB report also includes a section about how the WEC maintains voter records and works with the Department of Transportation and the Department of Health Services to track when voters may have moved through their driver’s licenses or when they may have died through the state’s vital statistics records. The report states that the WEC did not maintain copies of voter signatures because it did not have enough storage space to maintain the files in its computer system. Wolfe said that this decision was made by the Legislature because it didn’t make sense to have two state agencies spend the money to store identical data.
“These reports repeatedly and very clearly established the Commission’s determination that the Department of Transportation shall be the custodians of voter signatures, but that WEC would be able to access them whenever needed,” Wolfe said. “Put simply the Wisconsin Legislature, the Elections Commission and the Department of Transportation, each recognize that there was no rational reason for the State of Wisconsin to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars, ultimately millions over time, to maintain copies of data that was already in the state’s possession, professionally secured, backed up and readily available to WEC, whenever needed.”
Wolfe’s testimony wasn’t the only pushback from the WEC during the hearing. When staff from the LAB testified about what was in the report, a staff member was asked why only three of the six elections commissioners participated in the investigation. He responded that the three members of the commission appointed by Democrats, Ann Jacobs, Mark Thomsen and Julie Glancey, had either not responded or declined to participate.
During the testimony, Jacobs tweeted that this was untrue, including a screenshot of an email to the LAB asking when she’d be able to speak with auditors.
“LAB falsely claims I refused to speak with them,” she wrote. “Not only did I send them a letter, I reached out to confirm that they were going to speak with me. They never responded.”
After Wolfe’s testimony, a number of local elections officials and voting advocates spoke to defend the commission and push back at attempts to discredit the election.
“First and foremost, the audit confirmed that our elections are ‘safe and secure,’ as Chairman Cowles noted so succinctly,” Matt Rothschild, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, said. “Despite all the toxic sound and fury we’ve all been hearing about our elections, the report found nothing to demonstrate that the results of the elections were invalid. It presented no evidence of sweeping improprieties or calculated partisan maneuvers that might have distorted the outcome of the elections. None of that is in this report. Nothing of that kind. So that canard should be put to rest, once and for all.”
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