New elections commission member approved decisions Republicans have turned against
Don Millis (Courtesy Reinhart Boerner Van Deuren)
Don Millis, the newly appointed Republican member of the Wisconsin Elections Commission, is serving his second stint on the body. The first time he was a commissioner, he approved actions that Republicans later pointed to as evidence of misconduct in the 2020 presidential election.
Millis was a member of the commission when it was first created in 2016 by Republicans in the Legislature and then-Republican Gov. Scott Walker. As the body figured out how it would function as it replaced the Government Accountability Board, Millis was appointed by then-Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and served from May 2016 until January 2017.
During that time the body administered the 2016 presidential election, a recount of the results of that election requested by Green Party candidate Jill Stein and held eight meetings. Millis, absent for one, attended seven WEC meetings in his short first time on the board.
In the five years since Millis last sat on a WEC meeting, Wisconsin Republicans have become increasingly antagonistic toward election administration in the state, continuously alleging that the 2020 election was stolen from former President Donald Trump and attacking policies meant to make voting easier. Some of those policies were created in the early days of the WEC.
Absentee ballot guidance
In the WEC’s Oct. 14, 2016 meeting, according to the meeting minutes, the body approved guidance for municipal clerks telling them that if an absentee ballot is returned with parts missing from the address of the voter or a witness on the signed envelope, the clerk can add those details.
“Local election officials may add the municipality to the witness certificate if they are able to reasonably ascertain the information from other information on the envelope, or other reliable extrinsic sources,” the approved guidance states.
In 2020, the commission updated the guidance, allowing clerks to add any missing address information, not just the municipality.
Millis was the commissioner who made the motion to approve the original guidance, which passed the six-member bipartisan committee unanimously.
Yet in the 2020 election, as absentee voting surged in popularity because of the COVID-19 pandemic, this guidance became increasingly controversial. Republicans alleged that if individual clerks have the discretion to add missing elements, the policy could be implemented unfairly.
In its audit of the 2020 election last year, the Legislative Audit Bureau recommended that instead of the guidance allowing clerks to add missing address information, the commission should promulgate an administrative rule to outline the law for local clerks.
“We recommend the staff of the Wisconsin Elections Commission promulgate administrative rules to allow municipal clerks to correct or add missing witness address information to absentee ballot certificates, if the Wisconsin Elections Commission believes municipal clerks should be permitted to take such actions,” the LAB report stated.
Following the LAB’s report, the WEC took actions to follow the recommendations. This March, the body took votes on two possible administrative rules guiding absentee ballot certificate corrections. One would require clerks to contact the voter before making any changes; the other would implement the original 2016 guidance without the requirement to contact the voter.
The commission voted 4-2 to start the process for creating a rule that allows clerks to add address information without contacting the voter.
In addition to the certificate correction guidance, Millis also approved some of the decisions that detailed how the then-nascent WEC would function. Issues included which decisions would need to be made by the commissioners and what would be left to the nonpartisan staff and, importantly, what the role of the body’s administrator would be.
At the same meeting that the address correction guidance was approved, the body approved several motions on how authority would be delegated to the administrator, who at the time was now-Madison City Attorney Michael Haas.
Millis made the two motions outlining what the administrator could do in consultation with the commission chair and what he could do on his own. The commission unanimously approved the delegation of authority, which included the administrator’s ability to sign contracts, discuss litigation with the WEC’s attorneys and sign documents. The body agreed to revisit the administrator’s authority once a year.
For years, the WEC administrator was a mostly uncontroversial role. The current office-holder, Meagan Wolfe, was unanimously approved by the state Senate when she was appointed. But in the years since, Wolfe has become a regular target of Republicans who frequently accuse her of partisanship and over-reaching her authority. Some Republicans have baselessly threatened to have Wolfe jailed over actions she took during the 2020 election.
Republicans have also cited some of Wolfe’s decisions as their reasoning as they call for the disbanding of the WEC and the creation of an entirely new system of election administration in Wisconsin.
By March of 2017, Millis was off the commission. On Wednesday, he was appointed to the body a second time by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos. When he was appointed, Republicans from different wings of the party — including the segment that regularly attacks the 2020 election — celebrated his appointment.
Millis will take his seat at the WEC’s Friday meeting.
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