Chair Don Millis speaks during the Wisconsin Elections Commission meeting Tuesday. (Screenshot | WisEye)
The Wisconsin Elections Commission failed to reappoint administrator Meagan Wolfe in a vote Tuesday that three Democratic commission members are banking on to protect her from a Senate confirmation process she has been predicted to lose.
With the vote, Democrats on the body argued that a Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling in 2022 allows Wolfe to remain in the seat indefinitely — defying the efforts of election deniers to oust her after falsely accusing her of helping to steal the 2020 election.
The action brought predictions of a lawsuit against the commission.
Wolfe was unanimously endorsed by the commission for the administrator’s job in 2019 and confirmed by the Republican majority in the Senate. But she became the commission’s face in the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election and was attacked by supporters of former President Donald Trump
After Democrat Joe Biden carried Wisconsin by more than 20,000 votes that year and defeated Trump, Trump and many of his supporters pursued baseless claims of election fraud. They failed to reverse the outcome with recounts and filed lawsuits that were rejected.
Trump supporters attacked Wisconsin Elections Commission policies for the election outcome and depicted Wolfe as the architect of the policies they opposed. Earlier this month, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported on a campaign by some Republican state senators against confirming Wolfe for another term.
Against that backdrop, Tuesday’s elections commission meeting was called to discuss and vote on the appointment of an administrator to take the position when Wolfe’s current term ends July 1.
A majority of the six commission members praised Wolfe and lamented that she had been the victim of unfair attacks since the 2020 election.
“I think you would agree with me that Meagan Wolfe is blamed for all manner of fanciful conspiracies that have no basis in fact,” said Commission Chair Don Millis, a Republican.
He called the criticisms lobbed at the commission and at Wolfe the work of “grifters.” “It’s not about winning or preventing fraud — it’s about getting publicity or attention,” Millis said.
Democratic commissioner Mark Thomsen noted that Wolfe “has won national accolades for her expertise as an election official — as a nonpartisan election official” and has already indicated she wanted to serve another term.
“She has served as the administrator in the toughest times through a pandemic,” Thomsen said. “No one would ask such a person to give up that seat.”
The commission process that followed was laden with ironies. First, the commission’s three Democratic appointees argued on Tuesday — based on a state Supreme Court ruling in June 2022 that Democrats have widely criticized — that as long as Wolfe remained on the job, the commission could not name a successor.
The ruling last year held that Wausau dentist Frederick Prehn — an appointee of Republican former Gov. Scott Walker — could stay on the Natural Resources board after his term ended in May 2021. Prehn had refused to give up his seat even after Gov. Tony Evers appointed his successor. According to the ruling, Prehn could stay on the board indefinitely until the Senate confirmed Evers’ appointee.
Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg) never put the successor up for a confirmation vote for the rest of Evers’ first term. (Prehn stepped down in late 2022, enabling his successor to assume the seat while awaiting confirmation.)
Thomsen said the Prehn decision means that “we don’t have the authority or the ability to reappoint unless there’s a vacancy. And we do not have a vacancy.”
Millis cautioned against such a gambit. “I think it’s unwise to not have a vote on her appointment,” he said. “It’s more than a bad look. It’s going to create problems for us and for election officials throughout the state.”
Then came another ironic twist. Robert Spindell — a Republican commissioner who has criticized Wolfe in the past and said he would not vote to reappoint her — changed his position Tuesday.
Wolfe, Spindell said, has been “blamed for many items beyond her control,” including policies advanced by the commission in the past.
Spindell criticized the commission for having enacted policies that included suspending the use of special voting deputies to assist with collecting absentee ballots in nursing homes in 2020 — a response to the just-dawning COVID-19 pandemic — and for having allowed clerks to make minor corrections on absentee ballot addresses, a practice that the state Supreme Court ruled against in 2022.
But Wolfe “in my opinion has not achieved or maintained the confidence of Republicans and conservatives” in carrying out her role, said Spindell, who was one of a group of Wisconsin Republicans who cast a false electoral ballot for Donald Trump in 2020.
When Millis asked for a motion on appointing an administrator, Democratic commissioners — Thomsen, Ann Jacobs and Joseph Czarnezki — remained silent.
Then Spindell nominated Wolfe for a new four-year term.
Thomsen and Jacobs both objected. Thomsen reiterated the argument that without an active vacancy, “I don’t think we have the ability under the current law to reappoint.”
Thomsen argued that when the commission unanimously appointed Wolfe previously — after the confirmation of her predecessor had been “buried” in the Republican-controlled Senate — they first secured a promise she would be confirmed.
“I don’t think the chair of this agency should risk that kind of vote without obtaining prior consent of the Senate to confirm. That’s what we did before,” Thomsen told Millis. “I don’t think we should turn somebody’s dedication to public service and throw it out there for the wolves — the political wolves.”
That led to the final irony: The three Democrats on the commission, enthusiastic in their support for Wolfe, abstained from the vote to reappoint her, hewing to their argument that there was no vacancy to fill.
The three Republicans all declared their intention to vote to reappoint her.
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Spindell said he would cast his vote “to defer to the will of the Wisconsin Senate” and its confirmation role. “They are the elected representatives…. I’m just an appointed official. Therefore, I will change my vote to a yes, so that this matter may be resolved rather than festering through court cases.”
Republican commissioner Marge Bostelmann, who earlier had called Wolfe “the scapegoat for … people that still can’t accept the truth,” said she understood why Thomsen, Jacobs and Czarnezki were abstaining. But she argued it was important to show support for Wolfe. “I believe she’s the best person to [administer] the commission going forward,” Bostelmann said.
Millis concurred with the praise of Wolfe’s performance, but said he’d been torn on whether to reappoint her.
“As good a job as administrator Wolfe has done in carrying out the directions of the commission, does it make sense to continue?” he mused. “A lot of this is not fair, I guess.” He then announced he, too, would vote for Wolfe.
The law that governs the commission requires at least four votes from the six members to approve a motion.
“I’d ask you to think hard about a vote in which … the commission fails to appoint Administrator Wolfe to a new term,” Millis told the Democrats. “What impact is that? Not for public consumption, not for the benefit of the state Senate or for the conspiracy theorists? What effect does that have for the inevitable court case that’s going to be coming along?”
With that, the votes were cast: three in favor, none against, and three abstentions. “The motion fails,” Millis said.
When the vote was over, Thomsen offered congratulations to Wolfe, who was not visible on the virtual meeting.
“I am hoping that the courts follow the precedent that they laid out in Prehn, and that they leave you there until we vote to remove you,” Thomsen said. “That’s not going to happen, because there isn’t a majority here that would remove you themselves. And certainly I’m not going to let the Senate do something that we wouldn’t do ourselves.”
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