Racine at the center of Wisconsin’s election conspiracy universe

By: - January 12, 2023 6:45 am

In a video, Harry Wait holds up absentee ballots he requested on behalf of other people. (Screenshot)

At the Nov. 30 meeting of the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC), several people spoke during the public comment period to complain about how the recent election had been administered by the city of Racine. 

In early December, the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL), a right-wing legal advocacy organization, filed a complaint against the city in circuit court for its use of a “mobile voting van” which allowed people to cast early votes at the van rather than going into the clerk’s office or other pre-determined site. The organization had previously filed a similar complaint with the WEC, which was dismissed. 

“Racine’s abuse of alternate absentee ballot sites circumvents multiple statutory safeguards on the collection of absentee ballots,” WILL deputy counsel Anthony LoCoco said in a statement. “The WEC Commissioners failed to take action and delegated the matter to the WEC Administrator who declined to enjoin Racine’s illegal behavior. Further, although WILL’s complaint was filed in August, the WEC Administrator did not issue her decision on the matter until in-person absentee voting for the 2022 general election was essentially completed which meant that WILL could not appeal the decision until after the November general election was over. We are confident that a court will put an end to Racine’s egregious practices.”

In the two years since the 2020 election, the city of Racine and the surrounding area have become a hotbed of right-wing election-related activism. 

In November of 2021, Racine County Sheriff Christopher Schmaling accused five of the election commission’s six members of committing felony election fraud for choosing not to force voting assistants to go in person to nursing homes to collect absentee ballots during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Last year, Schmaling was again involved in a right-wing allegation of election fraud when Racine County resident Harry Wait reached out to the sheriff to alert him of a vulnerability in the state’s online absentee ballot request system. Instead of exposing a flaw, Wait informed Schmaling that he’d illegally requested and received absentee ballots on behalf of Racine’s Democratic Mayor Cory Mason and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester). 

Wait is now facing criminal charges for his fraudulent absentee ballot requests. 

The 2020 election was fair and accurate. Numerous reviews, audits, lawsuits and investigations in Wisconsin have affirmed that President Joe Biden won the state and that there was no widespread election fraud. Yet in the more than two years since the 2020 election, complaints of election fraud have come from all over the state. Two of the most vocal lawmakers on the issue, Reps. Janel Brandtjen and Tim Ramthun, came from Waukesha and Fond du Lac counties. Former state Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman’s widely derided review of the 2020 election was based in Brookfield. 

But the Racine area has seen election-related right-wing activism persist past the 2022 midterms with a fervor that other parts of the state have not been able to sustain as attention has shifted to other issues.

Wait tells the Wisconsin Examiner that the reason the energy has remained so high in the area is that it’s represented by “cheaters.” 

“We have a bunch of cheaters in our state, that’s why,” he says. “We know it and we have some proof but not enough to be able to take it into court and get it changed. We’re dealing with a couple very disingenuous electors in our part of the state. We’re dealing with Cory Mason and we’re dealing with Robin Vos, who’s also a very disingenuous human being, who happens to be my official who represents me in the state Assembly. We’re going to continue to remain highly focused on elections because we know both sides cheat.”

Wait’s organization, HOT Government, has moved its operation toward the extensive filing of open records requests and an attempt to scrutinize each and every voter file within the statewide voter registration system looking for what they believe are fake voters. 

“So there’s a local group here that’s very active, Harry Wait being one of their leaders who’ve really been pretty steadfast in their critique of the work that the city does to make sure that people have access to the polls,” Mason says. “So I think that’s what’s different. I think there’s a group here that’s radicalized in a way that we’re not seeing in other parts of the state.”

Mason says it’s part of his role as mayor to make sure every resident of the city has access to the polls and he doesn’t understand why a group of people have become obsessed with making it harder for the city’s residents to vote. 

“As mayor of the city, it is part of my job to make sure that there are free and fair elections where people can vote without harassment or delay and that should be a pretty universal statement that nobody should have a problem with,” Mason says. I couldn’t tell you why Racine County specifically is where a lot of this right-wing conspiracy theory and election denialism comes from. I just know that it’s really taken hold here amongst some folks, which, you know, ultimately culminated this summer with Harry Wait attempting to steal my vote and Speaker Vos’ vote as really a stunt to try to, again, make it harder for people to vote.”

“So the why is a great question,” he continues. “You’d have to ask them why they so believe that people exercising their right to vote is somehow problematic. But it is our job to do everything that we can to make sure that it is safe and easy for people to vote in the city. And that should be the goal of everybody everywhere.” 

Racine City Clerk Tara McMenamin has been the subject of numerous personal attacks over her administration of the city’s elections — including from Wait, who called her “unfriendly” in an interview with the Examiner. McMenamin says the city has done everything it can to make voting accessible within the city while prevailing in nearly all the challenges that have been made against it. 

“While there has certainly been an increase in complaints since the 2020 election, the City Clerk’s Office has worked diligently after every WEC decision to ensure we are in compliance and as transparent as possible with every election,” she said in an email. “2020 forced Clerk’s Offices state wide to conduct elections under any circumstance and the City answered the call to provide fair, accurate, accessible voting throughout the City and we will continue to work to follow election law, WEC decisions, and still provide for the City voters. The Clerk’s Office treats every complaint seriously no matter the source it originated from.  However, the City of Racine has won almost every complaint filed with the WEC.”

Despite the criminal charges, the lack of results and the Republican establishment’s abandonment of groups like Wait’s he says they aren’t done looking for records and what they see as evidence that the election system is corrupt. 

“We do have plenty of evidence and circumstantial evidence,” he says. Wait’s next court appearance is scheduled for April 21, where a judge will decide if Gableman will be allowed to join his defense team.

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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.