Commentary

The wheels are off the wagon with GOP elections bills

February 22, 2022 6:30 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

Wisconsin made the front page of The New York Times on Sunday in an article headlined “Scheme to Reinstall Trump Opens a Schism in Wisconsin GOP.

The state’s election audit, a raft of new voting restrictions pushed forward by Republican leaders of the Legislature, the nation’s only special counsel investigation into the 2020 election and the move led by State Rep. and GOP gubernatorial candidate Timothy Ramthun  to decertify the state’s electoral votes, taken together, put Wisconsin in a class by itself. 

“The situation in Wisconsin may be the most striking example of the struggle by Republican leaders to hold together their party when many of its most animated voters simply will not accept the reality of Mr. Trump’s loss,” The Times reported.

That struggle was on display at the Assembly State Affairs Committee Monday, where GOP committee members attempted to simultaneously encourage and distance themselves from testimony by members of the public spouting conspiracy theories — some of whom pointed fingers at the GOP legislators themselves.

The bills the committee put on a fast track Monday, after first announcing them Friday, without input from Democrats, elections officials or voting rights advocates, included a raft of measures Jay Heck of Common Cause described as “hyper-partisan” and “anti-voter.” 

Assembly Joint Resolution 133 seeks to amend the state constitution to add a photo ID requirement for voting. Another joint resolution, AJR 134, would prohibit private donations to help with election administration.

Dominique Uhl, testified to the committee as a concerned citizen who has done her own research into the supposed massive fraud perpetrated by local officials and election clerks with money “laundered” by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg through the Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL) — a nonprofit organization that provided grants to municipalities to help with the 2020 election. “It’s critical to understanding the scope and size of this election fraud enterprise that individuals were aware that the election officials in the five Wisconsin cities of Madison, Milwaukee, Racine, Kenosha and Green Bay formed a contractual alliance that is allegedly criminal when they accepted money from CTCL for their individual cities,” Uhl said. (There is no evidence of anything criminal about the donations from CTCL, which went to pay for personal protective equipment and other supplies in numerous areas around the state, including those where Trump won a majority of votes.)

Another voter testifying in favor of the bills, Holly Addison from Mukwanago, said she couldn’t give examples of all the voter fraud she was aware of because it would take too long. Urged by Rep. Tod Ohnstad (D-Kenosha) to watch a Youtube video of Elections Commission testimony last week that laid out the sheer impossibility of getting around all the checks and double-checks that prevent election theft, Addison replied that she had seen “endless videos” about election fraud and could not be convinced that something was not true when she had seen it “with my own eyes.”

Sen. Eric Wimberger (R-Green Bay), the author of a bill to require the verification of citizenship of voters on voter registration lists, conceded under questioning from Democrats on the committee that he does not believe that there were a lot of fraudulent votes in the 2020 election. “But some people do believe it,” he said. “And the perception of an injustice is just as bad as an actual injustice.”

This circular logic is at the heart of the Republicans’ position on voter fraud. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman, the leader of Wisconsin’s partisan election review, have similarly justified their quest for fraud by saying a lot of people believe there was fraud — a false belief they themselves are fanning.

It’s no accident that people are getting worked up about perceived injustice. Gableman on Friday filed a motion in Waukesha County Circuit Court once again demanding the jailing of local officials including the Wisconsin Elections Commission chair and the mayors of Madison and Green Bay if they don’t answer his subpoenas. 

The GOP continues to create the perception of injustice. But the perception, as The New York Times reports, is getting out of hand. 

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At the hearing on Monday, the wheels came off the wagon shortly after Rep. Daniel Knodl (R-Germantown), waving around a pocket copy of the U.S. Constitution, introduced a joint resolution calling for a constitutional convention to draft new amendments to the U.S. Constitution focusing on term limits for members of Congress. Three serious-looking schoolgirls showed up to testify rather forcefully against Knodl’s amendment. Elena, “a 16 year old girl who cherishes the Constitution of the United States of America,” lectured a surprised-looking Knodle on the text of Article V. A constitutional convention, she explained, is dangerous, “because it opens the Constitution up to revisions or replacement.” She and Knodle engaged in a brief debate about the text of Article V. Christie, a somber, bespectacled “13-year-old patriot” also opposed Knodle’s resolution, telling him, “It is my deepest dream to die in a free United States.” Her sister, 12-year-old Christie, testified that she is “proud to be an American and Wisconsinite” and that “I believe that opening our Constitution in the convention will ruin our America as we know it.”

The girls, it turned out, were the children of Dominique Uhl, the self-styled investigator of election conspiracies, who returned to the witness table with her husband, Curtis, who wielded his own pocket copy of the Constitution. Curtis expressed his pride in his children. Then warned, “We need to go back to the small precincts, hand-counted ballots and get rid of these machines that can be hacked at will.” Instead of the dangerous idea of a constitutional convention, Republicans should focus on preventing election fraud.

That’s what they did for the rest of the hearing. 

At the end of the day, voting rights advocates finally had a chance to speak. 

Madison’s city attorney, a weary looking Michael Haas, fresh from advising the mayor on Gableman’s threats to throw her in jail, explained how the bills will harm voters.

Most of the bills make it more burdensome and difficult to vote, and will do little to address fraud, which is exceedingly rare, he noted. Haas pointed out that in all the redundant and highly specific information required on absentee ballots by one GOP fraud-prevention measure, nowhere does it mention the most pertinent information of all: where the ballot should be sent. Presumably absentee voters are requesting ballots because they are absent, Haas noted dryly. Yet the new procedures don’t address the possibility of a temporary change of address.

If the Legislature is going to outlaw private grants to municipalities to help run elections (on the completely unfounded premise that they are an insidious effort to influence the results), it ought to at least provide some public funding in the same bill for overburdened and underfunded local elections officials.

Among the worst ideas in the whole batch of bills are criminal penalties for election clerks who fail to meet stringent standards for verifying voters’ identity and eligibility to cast a ballot. Why on Earth would anyone sign up to perform that public service ever again?

Another measure, replacing nonpartisan staff attorneys at the state elections commission with partisan attorneys, is “a very bad idea,” Haas said. “I cannot think of a worse agency for that to happen in than the state election agency.” 

The committee thanked him for his testimony. There were no questions. 

The Senate will take up the measures on Tuesday with final passage in the Assembly expected on Thursday. Gov. Tony Evers has said he will veto the bills. 

Stay tuned to see what the insurrectionists and the Republicans who are still attempting to harness their outrage do after that.

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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. Her book "Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers" won the 2022 Studs and Ida Terkel Award from The New Press.

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