Deadlock at Elections Commission would give Vos, LeMahieu opportunity to select new administrator

By: - April 13, 2023 5:30 am

Wisconsin Elections Commissioner Meagan Wolfe speaks during a 2021 legislative hearing. (Screenshot | WisEye)

The expiration of Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC) Administrator Meagan Wolfe’s term at the end of June is setting up a chance for Republicans to get a final crack at significantly influencing the state’s election policy before a new liberal majority is seated on the state  Supreme Court in August. 

During the 15 years that conservatives have held a majority on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, Republicans have had a reliable ally as they sought changes to election law. The court upheld a strict voter ID law signed into law by former Gov. Scott Walker, banned the use of absentee ballot drop boxes and — with some assistance from the U.S. Supreme Court — installed the political maps proposed by the Republican-controlled Legislature last year. 

With Milwaukee County Judge Janet Protasiewicz’s election to the court earlier this month, the new majority will be less likely to be amenable to measures that make it harder for people to vote. Republicans in the Legislature will have fewer opportunities to make changes. 

But the expiration of Wolfe’s term could give legislative Republicans one last chance. 

Wolfe, who was unanimously confirmed by the Senate to run the WEC in 2019, has become a regular target of right-wing attacks. As Republicans focused more heavily on the details of election administration in the wake of the 2020 election and a proliferation of  baseless accusations of election fraud, Wolfe was frequently painted as a nefarious bureaucrat working to elect Democrats. 

Often, Wolfe was blamed for actions she took while following direct instructions from the commission. Sometimes she was criticized for “guidance” the agency sent to municipal clerks across the state about ways to facilitate absentee voting as its use surged because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Former Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman, during his widely derided review of the 2020 election results, regularly lobbed attacks at Wolfe, including a number of comments about her clothing and personal appearance. 

Wolfe frequently appeared before the election committees of the Legislature to testify about the actual facts of election administration in Wisconsin, only to be forced to debunk evidence-free allegations conspiracy theorists had made to those same committees. 

A number of legislative Republicans have called for her to resign. 

With the end of Wolfe’s term, the selection of a new administrator will first be the responsibility of the commission itself. The WEC is made up of six members, three appointed by Democrats and three by Republicans. Four votes are required for any measure to be approved. 

The WEC was created by Republicans in 2015 as a replacement for the nonpartisan Government Accountability Board, which consisted of a panel of retired judges. The WEC’s six-member design means that votes often deadlock along partisan lines. The body has drawn criticism in recent years for failing to act during crises and one of its members, Republican-appointee Robert Spindell, has often been criticized for his extremely partisan actions — including serving as a false elector for former President Donald Trump and bragging about helping to suppress minority turnout in Milwaukee. 

The administrator of the WEC is the state’s chief election official. A nonpartisan official, the administrator plays a role in the certification of the state’s election results, interpreting election law and communicating with the state’s more than 1,900 local election officials over how to best run the state’s elections. The next administrator will be at the helm for the 2024 presidential race. 

Mark Thomsen, a Democratic appointee to the commission, told the Wisconsin Examiner that before the Democrats on the committee can take solace in the fact that the state Supreme Court will have their back in fights over election law, the body needs to get through the administrator selection process. 

“It’s going to be very interesting to see what happens between now and July, because the focus is going to be on our administrator and we’re going to get into the weeds, because Meagan Wolfe’s term is up and we already know that the Republicans have asked her to resign,” he said. “I see the big issue on the commission is going to be can we agree on a new administrator and if not what happens. And I know that the Senate is thinking they’re going to pick the next administrator because they’re going to want to run that agency for 2024, so all that’s going to happen regardless of the Supreme Court.”

Under state law, the commission has 45 days after the expiration of Wolfe’s term to choose a new administrator. If it’s unable to do so (most likely because of a deadlocked 3-3 vote) the responsibility passes to the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Legislative Organization (JCLO). 

JCLO is made up of the majority and minority leadership of both houses, including Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) and Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg). The committee can select an interim administrator to serve for up to one year or until the Senate confirms someone permanently. If the position is still vacant after a year, the process starts over with another commission vote. 

In a statement, Vos said he hopes the commission is able to select someone, but if not JCLO will do what the law requires. 

“Hopefully, the commission can come to an agreement on an independent, nonpartisan administrator,” he said. “If not, we will follow the law on JCLO selecting a new administrator.”

But Sen. Mark Spreitzer (D-Beloit) who serves on the Senate elections committee and previously served on the Assembly elections committee, said in a statement that despite the political firestorm surrounding the commission in recent years, it has sometimes been able to take meaningful action when required. 

“While the Elections Commission was initially set up as part of a Republican effort to inject more partisanship into election administration, it is important to remember that — with the notable exception of Bob Spindell — the commissioners have mostly been able to work together to get things done,” he said. “From the unanimous appointments of Administrator Wolfe to keeping our elections on track despite the COVID-19 pandemic, at least five commissioners have been able to come together to make decisions. Even as conspiracy theorists and Mr. Spindell attacked election integrity, the commission has certified our elections under both Democratic and Republican chairs.”

But, Spreitzer added, if the commission can’t reach consensus on a new administrator, it will be a sign that Republicans are trying to inject partisanship into the nonpartisan role. 

“As we look ahead, it is my hope that the Commission is allowed to do its work without interference,” Spreitzer said. “If Republicans try to undermine elections by deadlocking commission votes so that the Legislature is empowered to pick an administrator, we’ll know that former President Trump and his conspiracy theorists are once again calling the shots in Wisconsin’s Republican Party. After years of lies and wild accusations about elections, we will all be able to see through such a blatant power grab.”


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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.