In conspiracy-laden ‘circus’ Gableman attacks Wisconsin election administration

By: - March 2, 2022 6:00 am

Michael Gableman testifies before the Assembly Committee on Campaigns and Elections on March 1. (Screenshot | WisEye)

In three and a half hours of conspiracy-laden testimony that included downplaying the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol, recorded interviews with sleeping senior citizens and attacks on a number of election officials and organizations, former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman presented the “second interim report” of his partisan review of the 2020 presidential election on Tuesday to the Assembly Committee on Campaigns and Elections. 

Gableman, whose review has been widely derided as unprofessional, dangerous to democracy and extremely partisan, recommended that the state Legislature should disband the Wisconsin Elections Commission and decertify the results of the 2020 election — a move that has become a key issue for right-wing gubernatorial candidate Tim Ramthun, but legal experts have said is impossible and unconstitutional. 

“At this point, I believe the Legislature oughta take a very hard look at the option of decertification of the 2020 Wisconsin presidential election,” Gableman said. 

The review has been operating at the direction of Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Burlington) since last year and even though Gableman’s review has gone months past his original deadline without a contract with the Legislature after the initial one expired in December, he insisted that his review will continue, saying “this will not end.” 

Gableman’s statement that his work will continue comes even though the Assembly has adjourned for the 2021-22 session. Gableman told Rep. Mark Spreitzer (D-Beloit) that his ability to continue working past the end of the session and without a contract is “complicated.” 

Numerous lawsuits, audits, recounts and reviews have repeatedly affirmed that Joe Biden won Wisconsin’s 2020 election. While Gableman was testifying, Democrats and Republicans issued statements disputing  his assertions, calling his work a “circus,” an “attack on democracy” and a “fool’s errand.” 

“This circus has long surpassed being a mere embarrassment for our state,” Gov. Tony Evers said in a statement. “From the beginning, it has never been a serious or functioning effort, it has lacked public accountability and transparency, and it has been a colossal waste of taxpayer dollars.”

Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul, who Gableman repeatedly attacked in his testimony for filing lawsuits against the review over subpoenas issued against election officials, said the testimony is a stain on Wisconsin. 

“The Vos-Gableman investigation will long be remembered as a shameful, deeply embarrassing episode for our state Legislature,” Kaul said in a statement. “The Republicans in the Legislature who are responsible for this train wreck have an obligation to our democracy to condemn and end this preposterous fake investigation.” 

The condemnation of Gableman’s testimony didn’t just come from Democrats. After Gableman said he believes decertification of the state’s election is a valid avenue for legislators to take, Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke (R-Kaukauna) said that’s an impossible move. 

“It would have no practical impact [because] there is no Constitutional way to remove a sitting president other than through impeachment or incapacity,” Steineke tweeted. “Fool’s errand. Focus on the future.”

Vos, who has been attacked from Wisconsin’s right wing for not doing enough to overturn the 2020 election results and said previously that decertification is impossible, praised Gableman’s work. 

“I’d like to thank the Office of Special Counsel for their tireless efforts in finding the truth,” Vos said in a statement. “They’ve done a good job at showing there were issues in 2020, and the report is intended to ‘help correct these processes for future elections.’ Unfortunately, we’re experiencing obstruction by ligation, and must first get through the nine separate lawsuits that have been filed to allow us to complete the review.”

Despite his numerous accusations of criminal actions by elections officials across the state, most of Gableman’s allegations were theories that have bounced around Republican circles since the November 2020 election and have been repeatedly debunked by nonpartisan officials. In his hours of testimony, he only focused on a few sections of the 136-page report he filed to the committee just minutes before appearing.

Occasionally turning around to directly address the audience of supporters who came with him, Gableman alleged that members of the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC) had broken the law by sending absentee ballots to nursing homes; that grant money accepted by the state’s five largest cities to assist with running the election amounted to “bribery” and that former adviser to President Barack Obama David Plouffe was involved in interfering in the state’s elections. 

“The opinions in the Special Counsel’s latest interim report were fixated on topics that have been thoroughly addressed,” WEC Administrator Meagan Wolfe said in a statement. “The integrity of the November 2020 election, and of the WEC, has been shown time and time again through court cases and previous investigations.”

As evidence for his claim that senior citizens were taken advantage of in 2020, Gableman showed video clips from a number of interviews his staff had conducted with nursing home residents and their families, who allege that elderly people were forced into voting by facility staff. 

This claim, which has been frequently made by Republicans, stems from the allegations of Racine County Sheriff Christopher Schmaling. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the WEC chose to forgo the normal process of sending so-called special voting deputies into residential care facilities to assist with voting because visitors were being prohibited from entering nursing homes to protect residents from the virus. Schmaling has attempted to charge five of the six Wisconsin election commissioners with felony election fraud for not sending the deputies.

Gableman testified about alleged ties between Mark Zuckerberg and elections administrators. (Screenshot | WisEye)

In the videos, some of the residents appeared confused and one woman, surrounded by her family, was asleep. The family members were expressing surprise that their relatives were able to vote as attorney Eric Kardaal, a member of Gableman’s staff, asked a series of questions apparently meant to determine if someone is competent enough to vote. 

One of the videos includes a clip of a woman saying she was surprised her mother had been voting off and on for the past ten years because she thought being institutionalized meant someone couldn’t vote anymore. 

In fact, nursing home residents retain their right to vote even if they are under the guardianship of a relative. The only way for someone to lose their right to vote because of their mental capacity is if they’re declared incompetent by a judge. 

“People in nursing homes are not required to complete push-polls to exercise their constitutional right to vote,” Democrat-appointed elections commissioner Ann Jacobs tweeted. “These interrogations by Kardaal are completely irrelevant to whether people have a right to vote. You are allowed to vote for a candidate for any reason you choose.”

Gableman also spent a long portion of his testimony laying out a number of tenuous connections between grants received by municipalities to assist with election costs and former Obama adviser Plouffe as well as billionaire philanthropist George Soros and various organizations aimed at assisting election administration. 

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Since November 2020, Republicans have highlighted more than $8 million in grant money that Green Bay, Kenosha, Madison, Milwaukee and Racine received from the Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL), an organization that is partially funded by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Gableman repeatedly referred to these cities as the “Zuckerberg Five” even though more than 200 jurisdictions in Wisconsin also received grant money from the group. 

Through staff members at CTCL, the nonprofit Center for Election Innovation and Research — which aims to help boost election security — and the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC) — which is a collaboration between 30 states to help maintain accurate voter lists when people move or die — Gableman alleged a nefarious plot involving Plouffe, Wolfe and CEIR Executive Director David Becker to boost only Democratic turnout. 

Gableman was especially focused on “A Citizen’s Guide to Beating Donald Trump” a book published in 2020 by Plouffe that Gableman alleges is a blueprint for stealing the election through private grants and increased use of absentee ballots. 

Part of the grant money received by the municipalities was spent on helping with voter registration and absentee ballot requests from people of color, who have historically been prevented by voting through measures such as poll taxes, literacy tests, intimidation and restrictive voter ID laws. Gableman said he found this suspicious because Black voters typically vote for Democrats and he doesn’t believe this group has ever been disenfranchised. 

“They started using a phrase along the lines of ‘we have to target historically disenfranchised populations,’” Gableman said. “Historically, so sometime in the past, disenfranchised, disenfranchised means, you don’t have the right to vote. None of these voters, who are the targets of the Zuckerberg Five cities’ get out the vote campaigns, that I know, were disenfranchised. Everyone has the right to vote.”

“Why the focus, why David Plouffe and the Biden campaign and why did the CTCL money directed to the five cities, why did it focus on African Americans?” he continued. “Because as the Brookings Institute tells us, from November 2020, the headline ‘Black Americans have a strong preference for the Democratic Party.’”

Gableman tied all of this to ERIC — which Wisconsin has been a member of for years because of legislation passed by Republicans and signed by Republican Gov. Scott Walker — through Becker, who helped found the organization. In the past, Republicans have said ERIC’s data is so accurate that it must be used to remove people from the state’s list of active voters. 

Becker, who previously worked for the U.S. Department of Justice, repeatedly refuted Gableman’s allegations. 

“Failing to find any fraud, or any problem with the way [Wisconsin] election officials of both parties facilitated democracy, sadly Gableman now simply resorts to ad hominem attacks and guilt by association (and even that is false),” Becker tweeted. “It’s yet another sad day for American Democracy.”

Later in the hearing, while taking questions from committee members, Gableman lashed out at Democrats who questioned his findings. 

Rep. Lisa Subeck (D-Madison) asked Gableman about his connections to Republicans, his previous statements that he believes the election was stolen and if he would eventually release all the documents that have been created as he’s conducted his review, to which Gableman responded by accusing Subeck of impugning his honor.

Do I look or sound to you like a man who wants to do a pointless or illegitimate exercise?

– Michael Gableman

“You are questioning my integrity, and I must respond,” Gableman said, occasionally addressing her as “Ms. Subeck” instead of using her official title of “Representative.” 

“I want to be judged, not on the fact that [Former Republican Gov.] Tommy Thompson appointed me [as a district attorney], even though I was an independent at that time, not a Republican or Democrat. I want to be judged on the quality of my work. And in order to do that, I have to show people what I relied on. If there’s a disconnect, well, then I have no credibility. And then this whole exercise has been pointless. Do I look or sound to you like a man who wants to do a pointless or illegitimate exercise?” 

After Subeck tried repeatedly but unsuccessfully to get Gableman to say whether or not he’d release all of his documents, the committee’s chair, Rep. Janel Brandtjen (R-Menomonee Falls) jumped in. 

“I would just like to remind people that this is not a Spanish Inquisition,” Brandtjen said.

Gableman also spent a lot of time criticizing efforts to rein in his sprawling review and conduct oversight on his use of taxpayer funds. Those efforts include lawsuits filed by Kaul and lawyers for the mayors of the five cities he targeted to reduce the scope of Gableman’s subpoenas. Gableman has threatened to throw the mayors of the five cities in jail for failing to sit for private interviews. 

In court, an attorney for Gableman stated that the work of the review is more important than the constitutional concerns raised by the subpoenas. 

Gableman and Vos have also been fighting open records requests filed by government watchdog American Oversight for the documents created as the review is conducted. 

In the report and in his testimony, Gableman said these efforts to shed light on how he’s digging through the state’s elections amount to obstruction. 

“Not only has the Wisconsin Attorney General intervened (and lost) in court to block certain subpoenas, and not only have left-wing groups provided support adverse to Wisconsin taxpayers — for instance by providing legal support to government employees seeking to keep their work secret, filing dilatory open records requests, and advancing frivolous complaints before various boards — but the Administrator of the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC) has explicitly stated to the Chairwoman of the Assembly Committee on Campaigns and Elections that she is prohibited by law and by private contract from turning over certain public records,” the report states. “Until these lawsuits are resolved, there appears to be no way to fully vindicate the right of the people of the State of Wisconsin to know how their government is run. Such lawsuits have proved a costly and time-wasting exercise.”

After the hearing, the three Democrats on the committee said that the conspiracy theorists had succeeded in attacking Wisconsin’s democracy. 

“Today, conspiracy theorists got exactly what they wanted from the sham investigation overseen by Republican Speaker Robin Vos,” a statement from the Democrats said. “For hours, innuendo and wild accusations took center stage in the Assembly Committee on Campaigns and Elections. Mike Gableman’s assertion that the Legislature should consider decertifying the 2020 election — which nonpartisan attorneys have determined is illegal — represents a direct attack on our democracy. The only people helped by promoting this reckless legal theory are people like former President Trump, who will stop at nothing to undermine faith in the election he lost.” 

“Meanwhile, Mike Gableman made clear that he will continue his sham investigation at taxpayer expense, despite not having a written contract extension since 2021 to authorize his activity moving forward,” the statement continued. “Speaker Vos should take responsibility for this unaccountable behavior and make it clear whether or not Mike Gableman actually works for him, what his new deadline is, and how much more taxpayer money will be wasted on this partisan stunt. We must all be clear: Joe Biden won the 2020 Election. Donald Trump lost. It’s far past time for Republicans to move on.”

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Henry Redman
Henry Redman

Henry Redman is a staff reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner who focuses on covering Wisconsin's towns and rural areas. He previously covered crime and courts at the Daily Jefferson County Union. A lifelong Midwesterner, he was born in Cleveland, Ohio and graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a degree in journalism in May 2019.

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