Screenshot via Wisconsin Eye
On Tuesday, Ann Jacobs, a Democratic appointee to the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC), was testifying at a hearing of the Wisconsin Senate elections committee Tuesday over the disputed confirmation of WEC Administrator Meagan Wolfe, when Sen. Dan Knodl (R-Germantown), the committee’s chair, challenged Jacobs’ previous assertion that the hearing would be a “circus.”
In the hours that followed, Knodl presided over a hearing that brought a parade of election conspiracy theories back into the Wisconsin State Capitol. Some of Wisconsin’s most prominent election deniers came to testify against Wolfe’s reappointment as administrator while other citizens who spoke lauded them as “heroes.” The crowd regularly applauded speakers’ comments about election theft, with little pushback from Knodl.
The crowd erupted with disdain when Jacobs stated the 2020 election in Wisconsin was fair and accurate. Praise for former Supreme Court Justice and disgraced election investigator Michael Gableman, drew applause. A call for Wolfe’s arrest was met with cheers.
Wolfe’s four-year term expired at the end of June. But in a procedural move, the three Democratic appointees on the WEC abstained from voting on her renomination, preventing the vote from receiving the four votes traditionally required for a motion to pass the body. The move took advantage of a state Supreme Court precedent set last year in Prehn v. Kaul, which found that an appointee to the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board could hold onto his seat indefinitely until his replacement was confirmed.
A decision in the Prehn case held that a vacancy in an appointed seat isn’t created by the expiration of the appointee’s term. Furthermore, Wisconsin law states that a majority vote of the six members of the commission is required to advance someone’s nomination to fill the vacant administrator position.
Despite the lack of four votes for Wolfe’s renomination, the Senate moved forward as if she’d been nominated, resulting in the hearing Tuesday. Wolfe did not attend, after Attorney General Josh Kaul wrote in a legal memo that the issue was not properly before the Senate.
The dispute is likely to be decided in court, yet one of the committee members, Sen. Romaine Quinn (R-Cameron), said “it was never our intent” to allow the administrator to remain in the seat after the expiration of her four-year term. That’s a reversal for the Senate’s Republican leadership, which played a major role in establishing the Prehn precedent. Texts and emails of the appointee, Fred Prehn, showed that he was in communication with Senate staff as he worked to hold onto power while Republican senators refused to hold a confirmation hearing for his replacement, who had been nominated by Gov. Tony Evers, for the purpose of keeping him in power.
“Is there a way to solve what is concerning Senator Quinn about the concept of a holdover person?” Jacobs asked during her testimony. “There is and I encourage you to do it, because I think the Prehn case is a terrible case and I think it really ought to be overturned.”
The 2020 presidential election was fair and accurate. Numerous reviews, audits, investigations, recounts and lawsuits have affirmed the results. In the years since the election, Wolfe has become a regular and favored target of conspiracists who believe she altered election policies to benefit Democrats. Wolfe, whose work was supported at the hearing by a handful of election clerks and members of the public, is widely regarded nationally as a leader in competent election administration.
Early in the hearing, Knodl objected to the characterization of Rock County Clerk Lisa Tollefson that the spread of election conspiracism will create “a world of crazy” for Wisconsin’s election clerks during the 2024 presidential election.
Rep. Janel Brandtjen (R-Menomonee Falls), was the first person to testify at the hearing.
Brandtjen, who chaired the Assembly elections committee during the last legislative session, is one of the strongest proponents of election denialism in the Legislature. She was one of just three lawmakers to sign on to an effort to decertify the results of the 2020 election and regularly used her control of the committee gavel to invite people spreading unfounded conspiracy theories to testify. Brandtjen testified about “Fido Keys” — the codes election officials have to access the state’s voting system — and long expired records requests, rehashing disputes she had with the WEC during her time as chair of the elections committee.
Also appearing to testify against Wolfe was a representative of the America First Policy Institute, a think tank whose board includes four members of former President Donald Trump’s cabinet and two of his former spokespeople. After that came Jefferson Davis, a former Menomonee Falls village president, who was one of the activists most strongly pushing the decertification of the state’s election results last year. Davis told committee members “we have the evidence” of election fraud but that he will only show people if they sign non-disclosure agreements.
Shortly after Davis, one speaker testified for five minutes on debunked conspiracy theories about electronic voting machines being vulnerable to hacking.
Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause Wisconsin, testified next, defending Wolfe from the onslaught of criticism. Heck’s testimony quickly descended into an argument with Quinn, relitigating investigations into alleged campaign finance law violations by former Gov. Scott Walker that ultimately resulted in the disbanding of the WEC’s predecessor agency.
Heck was followed by some of Wisconsin’s loudest election conspiracists. Ron Heuer, president of the Wisconsin Voter Alliance, who has regularly shared conspiracy theories about fraud in the state’s electronic voting system and was later hired to work on Gableman’s election review, testified about “Zuckerbucks” — the grant funding many Wisconsin municipalities received during the 2020 election to help cover the added costs of running an election during a pandemic.
After Heuer came Gableman himself, whose testimony included personally insulting Wolfe and questioning why she didn’t appear.
Next came Peter Bernegger, an election activist who was previously convicted of felony mail fraud. Bernegger has alleged that he has a “supercomputer” that has been able to prove fraud in the state’s voter registration system. Election experts said that he was confusing parents with their children who had similar names and misunderstanding how frequently people move in and out of college dorms to come up with an inflated number of fraudulent registrations.
Bernegger’s testimony focused heavily on ERIC, a nonprofit consortium of state election systems that allows officials to catch when someone is registered in multiple states at the same time. Experts say ERIC is one of Wisconsin’s best tools for rooting out election fraud.
Another witness was Harry Wait, the founder of a Racine area election conspiracy outfit, H.O.T. Government. Wait is currently facing felony election fraud charges for requesting absentee ballots by impersonating other voters. Wait’s testimony blamed Wolfe for his own legal troubles.
To close the hearing, former state Rep. Tim Ramthun, who ran a primary campaign for governor last year on a platform almost entirely based on decertifying the 2020 election, stepped up to testify, naming a list of election administration policies that he believes have been corrupted. None of his allegations have ever been proven.
“In your testimony you mentioned we’re going to be in a world of crazy,” Knodl said to Tollefson, the Rock County Clerk, early in the hearing. “What are you predicting, or do you have information that something is on the horizon? Can we just follow the law and the election should go OK? What’s that mean, the world of crazy?”
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