WEC continues to deal with Republican election blitz
A Utah County Election worker gathers ballots from a drop box on October 26, 2020 in Springville, Utah. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)
The Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC) continued to feel the crush of Republican pressure on the agency through investigations and legal maneuvers in a meeting on Tuesday.
The bipartisan commission, consisting of three Republicans and three Democrats, has become the focus of Republican ire due to the conspiracy theories about the 2020 presidential election. The attacks have spanned from legislative leaders asking for the resignation of commissioners and staff to law enforcement officials threatening to arrest commissioners. On Tuesday, the commission was forced to respond to some of the Republican-led Legislature’s most recent efforts to attack the agency and change the state’s election rules.
Late last month, the Assembly Committee on Campaigns and Elections requested a massive amount of data from the commission. The data request includes the state’s entire voter database in addition to information such as what entities have paid to receive voter data, contracts with the WEC and the agencies that preceded it over the past 20 years.
Some of these data requests are so massive, and require so much work from commission staff that they would cost more than $100,000, according to WEC Administrator Meagan Wolfe.
In addition to the cost and staff time required to pull together the requested data, Wolfe said that the computer processing power required to do such a search of the WEC’s servers would essentially shut down the entire agency for days because the servers wouldn’t be able to handle any other work.
Shutting down the entire agency to do this search is especially problematic, according to Wolfe, because this is a year with important elections and the political redistricting process.
In the normal open records process in Wisconsin, a request can be denied if it is too broad and will take too much work to fulfill or if the records requested don’t already exist — meaning a government body does not need to create a record or dataset that doesn’t already exist in order to respond to a request.
The rules that guide these requests from the Assembly elections committee are slightly different and follow pre-existing guidelines for requesting data and information from the statewide voter database, a tool political parties and outside entities use frequently to identify voters to contact.
Democratic Commissioner Mark Thomsen said he believes these burdensome requests are an effort to put a wrench in the gears of the WEC because many Republicans, who created the body in 2015, have said they want to abolish the agency.
“We have a major role in 2022,” Thomsen said. “With new maps and elections, nonpartisan elections coming up, and with partisan primaries in August, and a big race, we cannot shut down for useless requests for data or to create lists that don’t exist. I know there are people that have asked to abolish this agency and change what we do. But that means you have to go pass a law and do it.”
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“They don’t like what we’re doing,” he continued. “They have to go pass a law to get rid of us, but they can’t ask requests that shut us down and preclude us from making sure that we continue to provide accurate, fair, secure and safe elections.”
The commissioners also responded to an action taken this week by the Legislature’s Joint Committee for the Review of Administrative Rules (JCRAR), which seeks to force the body to establish emergency rules guiding the use of drop boxes for collecting absentee ballots and correcting minor errors on the address lines of absentee ballot envelopes.
Both issues, which have been in place as WEC guidance for years, have recently become popular targets of Republicans who claim both practices are vulnerable to fraud.
Following a report from the Legislative Audit Bureau last year, the commission began the process to establish permanent administrative rules guiding the use of both practices.
The normal rulemaking process is a long and winding road through many areas of state government.
Despite the WEC’s actions in early December to do exactly what the Audit Bureau had recommended by working to establish the rules, the six Republicans on JCRAR voted on Monday to tell the commission to start the emergency rulemaking process — which is still lengthy, but more consolidated than the normal process.
On Tuesday, the commission was discussing the scheduling of a future meeting to work out how to respond to JCRAR, yet the meeting devolved into partisan bickering as it became clear the six commissioners were divided over how to respond.
The Democratic commissioners said it was unclear if the committee even had the legal authority to take such an action. They added that it was undemocratic for Republicans to try to force a change in the law through an obscure rulemaking process after they failed to pass legislation on the issue last year.
“I want to know whether the JCRAR has the authority to pull a stunt claiming there’s an emergency rule on a bill that they couldn’t get passed,” Thomsen said. “Because it seems to me that if you can’t pass it as a law you certainly can’t force a commission to adopt the law.”
“Seems to me that’s not how democracies work,” he continued.
Republican commissioner Robert Spindell, the body’s most right-wing member, said Thomsen’s legal reasoning was wrong and argued for just going ahead and doing what the Republican legislators wanted.
“I think the legal reasoning that Mark is bringing up is tortured and twisted,” Spindell, who was one of ten Wisconsin Republicans to cast an electoral college vote for Donald Trump even though Joe Biden won the state, said.
Thomsen rebutted, saying Spindell should stand up for the agency and not bend to every whim of Republicans in the Legislature.
“Come on Bob, would you get a backbone and be a commissioner?” Thomsen retorted.
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