Commentary

McCarthyism is back with Wisconsin’s election fraud investigations

November 11, 2021 8:59 am
Former Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman leads the partisan review of the 2020 election. (YouTube | Office of the Special Counsel)

Former Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman in a video promoting the partisan review of the 2020 election. (YouTube | Office of the Special Counsel)

Sen. Joe McCarthy is alive and well in Wisconsin. The bullying, sneering, dishonest demagogue who dragged so many people through the mud with his specious “investigations” of “unAmerican activities” in the 1950s would be impressed by the Wisconsin Legislature’s phony hunt for election fraud.

McCarthy would be particularly proud of Michael Gableman, who, for the sheer audacity of his presentation to the Assembly Campaigns and Elections Committee on Wednesday, wins the McCarthyism award.

Gableman, who has been paid $11,000 per month from July to October to lead the Legislature’s partisan election investigation, told committee member Rep. Mark Spreitzer (D-Beloit), “I took this job … because nobody else would take it. And you know why I took it, Representative? I took it not for the rich, not for the powerful, not for the politically connected. I took it for the average citizen who was working a job where they’re trying to make ends meet, and they’re trying to raise a family and they’re trying to do the best they can and they feel that their right to vote has been stolen.”

Gableman testifying to the Assembly committee Screenshot | Wisconsin Eye
Gableman testifying to the Assembly committee | Screenshot Wisconsin Eye

Gableman’s populist rant did not stop there. “Powerful and rich forces are aligned against me,” he declared. Incredibly, Gableman, who ushered in a new era of big spending by outside groups and brass-knuckles partisanship in Supreme Court races, and who then refused to recuse himself from cases involving his supporters, posited that one of his chief concerns is the corrupting influence of “outside money” on elections. 

And that wasn’t all. When Spreitzer repeated the findings of the Legislative Audit Bureau report and elections experts that the 2020 election was safe and secure, Gableman shot back, “That is one of the most absurd things I’ve ever heard.”

“If you’re so confident, Representative, that this election was a model of integrity, then you are in the minority in this country and in this state,” he added. 

In fact, according to the latest Marquette University Law School poll, released Nov. 3, “Confidence in the accuracy of the 2020 election in Wisconsin is little changed at 65% from 67% in August. Those with doubts about the election were 32% in October, the same as the August poll.”

But Gableman and Republicans are seeking to change all that.

Casual dishonesty is a hallmark of McCarthyism, as is being a bully. Gableman’s sneering contempt for Democrats on the committee revived the ghost of Joe. Take his nonanswers to Spreitzer and Rep. Jodi Emerson (D-Eau Claire) who pressed him fruitlessly for information on how he is spending the $680,000 in taxpayers’ money awarded to him to conduct his investigation by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos. 

Rep. Mark Spreitzer (D-Beloit) asks questions during the Assembly elections committee hearing | Screenshot Wisconsin Eye
Rep. Mark Spreitzer (D-Beloit) asks questions during the Assembly elections committee hearing | Screenshot Wisconsin Eye

Gableman refused to tell the committee whom he has hired to investigate the election, but also denied that he was refusing to disclose the information, saying he would tell them eventually. At this, Spreitzer threw up his hands. “I’m familiar with the filibuster in the U.S. Senate,” he said. “I didn’t know we had one. And if we’re not here to answer questions, there’s not much point in asking.”

“I’m here to answer relevant questions,” Gableman replied acidly.

Gableman didn’t even begin his investigation until multiple recounts had already affirmed the outcome of the 2020 election and more than 50 lawsuits brought by President Donald Trump and his allies alleging wrongdoing were dismissed. Before he took his current job, Gableman made public comments about the election being “stolen,”  traveled to Maricopa County to view the much-derided election-fraud “audit” in Arizona (that found no proof of fraud) and attended an election-conspiracy conference hosted by MyPillow CEO and far-right conspiracist Mike Lindell.

Gableman’s fraud “investigation” is the product of a parallel universe populated by conspiracy theorists like committee chair Janel Brandtjen (R-Waukesha) who thinks Vos is too soft on fraud and that “ghost voters” cast untraced ballots all over the state. 

Committee chair Janel Brantjen (R-Waukesha) Screenshot | Wisconsin Eye
Committee chair Janel Brantjen (R-Waukesha) | Screenshot Wisconsin Eye

Brandtjen, a happy warrior of the right-wing fringe, moved things along in Wednesday’s hearing, admonishing Democrats to keep a civil tone even as Gableman and Sgt. Michael Luell of the Racine County Sheriff’s Office talked over them. She cut off discussion of how Gableman is spending the taxpayers’ money as if it were unseemly to ask. 

The Racine County Sheriff’s report was another display of aggression designed to appeal to the Trump base. Luell testified in full uniform, conferring a tough-guy, law-and-order feel to the proceedings.

The bullying during the hearing was hard to watch. Both Luell and Gableman tried to turn the tables on the Democrats on the committee, asking their own questions and grandstanding in a display of aggression and disrespect worthy of both McCarthy and Trump. Performative aggression, it turns out, is what the election fraud “investigations” are all about — not any actual investigation of the facts.

As Louis Menand wrote in a piece on McCarthy in The New Yorker in 2020, “You could fight him, in which case he just made your life harder, or you could ignore him, in which case he rolled right over you. He verbally abused people who disagreed with him.”

Like Trump and his imitators in the Republican Party, “His fans liked that he was a bully,” Menand writes of McCarthy, “and they liked that he scandalized the genteel and the privileged.”

Rep. Jodi Emerson (D-Eau Claire) Screenshot | Wisconsin Eye
Rep. Jodi Emerson (D-Eau Claire) | Screenshot Wisconsin Eye

On that score, Gableman’s exchange with Emerson was troubling. Having been whacked by committee chair Brandtjen for interrupting Luell when he tried to talk over Legislative Counsel and give his own legal opinion, Emerson sounded apologetic.

“I’m really not trying to be a partisan hack here,” she told Gableman, unnecessarily. 

“I want to have faith in your investigation,” Emerson said. “And in order to do that, I need you to share with me, and with the taxpayers of Wisconsin, who is digging into this stuff? Who’s asking the questions and how you are getting the results? And I truly am asking this with all due respect, sir.”

Gableman smiled indulgently, “I would love to drop by sometime soon and have a cup of coffee,” he said. Then, ignoring Emerson’s question, he turned his attention to the Republican members of the committee, who, one by one, expressed their gratitude for his hard work on behalf of the little guy. 

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On the same day the Assembly committee held its hearing, Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg), Senate President Chris Kapenga (R-Delafield), and the chair of the Senate elections committee Sen. Kathleen Bernier (R-Chippewa Falls) issued a subpoena to the city of Madison clerk, Maribeth Witzel-Behl, ordering her to turn over election documents. “Out of the thirty municipalities surveyed by LAB [Legislative Audit Bureau] auditors, only the City of Madison refused to allow nonpartisan auditors full access to their ballot certificates,” the senators declared.

That refusal, as the LAB itself noted in its report, followed guidance from the federal government that warned elections clerks they could be in violation of federal law if they gave up physical custody of ballots.

McCarthy made copious use of subpoenas and pursued spurious charges, forcing people to appear before his committee and answer questions. He took particular pleasure in browbeating and insulting people.

“He also had easy access to money, much of it from Texas oilmen, which he used to help unseat politicians who crossed him,” Menand writes.

Sounds a lot like Gableman, the Legislature’s Republican leaders, and the whole election-fraud scam promoted by Trump and supported by rightwing millionaires like the MyPilllow executive.

Sgt. Luell of the Racine County Sheriff's Office testifies before the Assembly committee | Screenshot Wisconsin Eye
Sgt. Luell of the Racine County Sheriff’s Office testifies before the Assembly committee | Screenshot Wisconsin Eye

One of the odder moments in the hearing came from Luell, as he explained why the Sheriff’s office was recommending criminal charges (which the county DA has so far declined to pursue) against elections officials who didn’t send special voting deputies into nursing homes during the pandemic.

He launched into a long, emotional anecdote about a conversation with the sobbing wife of a nursing home resident, who, we were given to believe was forced to vote even though she says his mind is going. (The only way you can lose the right to vote is if a court determines you’re not competent, which did not happen in at least seven out of the eight cases Luell presented.)

Unbothered by the facts, Luell puffed out his chest,  invoked the U.S. Constitution — “the greatest document in the world” and pointed to his cases involving the sexual assault and murder of little girls — “and no one is supposed to care?!”

“What distinguished McCarthy’s claims was their outlandishness,” Menand writes. By that measure we are surely entering a new McCarthy era.

McCarthy finally outdid himself when he went after George Marshall, the Secretary of Defense, former Secretary of State, and the author of the Marshall Plan, claiming that he was at the center of “a conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man.”

At last, people decided he had gone too far, besmirching too many innocent people with his lies and wearing down the patience of the public, the press and his colleagues in the Senate, who for too long were frightened into silence and complicity. That memorable line: “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?” spoken by attorney Joseph Welch at the Army-McCarthy hearings, finally summed up a whole dark era. But it took many years and many wasted lives to get to that point.

The same question about decency should be put to the GOP today. Let’s hope it doesn’t take as long this time for it to sink in.

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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.

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