WEC considers massive legislative data request, observer rules

By: - November 30, 2022 5:12 pm
Rep. Janel Brandtjen speaking on the Assembly floor into a microphone

Rep. Janel Brandtjen | Facebook

The Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC) deadlocked on Wednesday on how to move forward with a massive request for voter data from Republican lawmakers. Commissioners also discussed the next steps for writing a new rule guiding how election observers can operate at polling places. 

Earlier this year, Rep. Janel Brandtjen (R-Menomonee Falls), chair of the Assembly Committee on Campaigns and Elections, requested a large amount of data from the agency to further her efforts to find evidence of fraud in the 2020 election. Her request included basically the entire statewide voter registration database and a log of every time a voter’s status changed due to a move, a death, or being declared incompetent by a judge. 

Brandtjen and conservatives have focused increasingly on the voter rolls in the two years since the 2020 election, which numerous audits, investigations and lawsuits have affirmed was accurate. Republicans have alleged that the state’s voter rolls are full of voters who are ineligible to vote or that voters that don’t exist are registered. 

Since the summer, the WEC has been figuring out what to do with Brandtjen’s request, which is so big it would essentially shut down the agency’s computing capabilities for two weeks and cost nearly $50,000. 

“Put simply, the entire statewide system will be slower, less responsive, and more prone to errors, for all users, for at least two weeks,” states an agency staff memo about the data request.

The data also includes the personal contact information of nearly all of the state’s more than 3 million registered voters. 

Previously, the six commissioners had directed agency staff to work out a memorandum of understanding with the Assembly elections committee outlining that the data must be kept confidential. Several of the commissioners have also pushed for the Legislature to provide the agency with additional money to cover the costs associated with the work. 

The Legislature has since declined to sign on to the agreement, a decision that especially frustrated the Democratic commissioners, who have raised concerns that a group of politicians might have use for every Wisconsin voter’s phone number beyond the work of government. 

“If they’re not willing to even agree to the most basic — and I just reread the MOU, the MOU literally says, ‘You have to keep it confidential. You have to safeguard it,’” Democratic Commissioner Ann Jacobs said. “You can’t give it to other people. It is limited in this and if they’re not willing to even say ‘we won’t give it to other people.’ Like that’s the most basic part of this. It has to be a non-starter.”

Other commissioners raised the point that the status of the Legislature has changed since the data was requested this summer. 

The data request has been spearheaded by Brandtjen, who has been effectively exiled from the Republican caucus in recent weeks and appears unlikely to be given back the elections committee gavel. Brandtjen — who has repeatedly criticized Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) — was banned from the Assembly Republican’s closed caucus meetings earlier in November. 

“We have put out a memorandum that we were willing to cooperate if the committee was willing to protect the private information of citizens,” Democratic Commissioner Mark Thomsen said. “They haven’t signed it. The world has changed. The requester, now the Republican Party won’t even trust her in their own private meetings. Why would we then trust her but the Republican Party isn’t? Now I’m not privy to those discussions. All I know is what I’ve read and she isn’t allowed in their private conversations. So why would we turn over important private information of citizens right now?”

Despite the Democratic objections, Republican commissioner Robert Spindell was pushing for the release of the data. 

“I think that this is certainly a reasonable request,” he said. 

Ultimately, a GOP motion to move forward with the data request so long as the Assembly committee votes for the chair to sign the MOU failed on a 3-3 vote. Without any action, the agency staff will just keep trying to get the committee to cooperate with the confidentiality requirement. 

Earlier in the meeting, the commissioners discussed the next steps in the rulemaking process for a new rule to guide how election observers must behave and be treated at polling places. The next step in the long rulemaking process is a public hearing on a scope statement that’s already been approved by Gov. Tony Evers. 

The commissioners discussed the possibility of convening an advisory committee on the rule after such a body was suggested during the meeting’s public comment period. The advisory committee would consist of members of the major parties, election workers and clerks and disability and voting rights activists.

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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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