The Senate Committee on Shared Revenue, Elections and Consumer Protection at its Sept. 26 meeting. (Screenshot | WisEye)
A group of Republican lawmakers have released a proposal to dissolve the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC) and shift the administration of the state’s elections to the secretary of state. Under the proposed legislation, the secretary would need approval from the elections committees of both the Assembly and Senate before taking any action on election rules.
Critics say the proposal is an attempt to “mollify” the most extreme members of the Republican caucus in the Legislature and a subset of Republican voters who have become hostile to the WEC in the more than three years since the 2020 election due to baseless conspiracy theories that the commission helped steal the election from former President Donald Trump.
The proposal is currently circulating in the Legislature for co-sponsorship. Already signed on are the bill’s author, Rep. Ty Bodden (R-Hilbert) and Sen. Dan Knodl (R-Germantown), who chairs the Senate elections committee that would gain partial control over election administration.
“I am beyond thankful for Senator Knodl’s leadership on this bill, and a huge thank you to my fellow freshman legislators who signed on to help lead on this issue,” Bodden said in a statement. “The Wisconsin Elections Commission and its makeup has been a disaster for the State of Wisconsin. The Government Accountability Board was a failed agency and WEC was another failed experiment that replaced it. Let’s not try to reinvent the wheel, but rather give the responsibilities back to the Secretary of State, the position that administers elections in 38 other states … This is common sense. We need to put the voters in charge and let the Legislature do its job to be a check on our Secretary of State, just like we do with our Governor.”
The WEC itself is a Republican creation, established in 2015 with zero Democratic votes after Republicans had turned on the agency previously responsible for election administration in the state, the Government Accountability Board (GAB). The GAB was made up of a panel of retired judges. Republicans axed it after it launched investigations into campaign finance violations by former Republican Gov. Scott Walker.
Rather than follow the nonpartisan model of the GAB, Republican legislative leaders designed the WEC to be bipartisan, with a 3-3 split of Democratic and Republican appointees. The agency is run by an administrator, who can’t take any action without approval by a majority vote of the commission.
The current administrator, Meagan Wolfe, was confirmed unanimously by the Senate in 2019. But Republicans have vilified her in the years since 2020 over complaints about that election’s administration.
Wolfe remains in the position even though her term expired earlier this year because of a legal maneuver by the Democrats on the commission to keep her in her seat. Republicans in the Senate voted to remove her, yet later admitted in court that the vote was “symbolic.” An effort to impeach Wolfe has also been started in the Assembly.
Republican complaints about the WEC are largely based on actions of the six member commission in response to the difficulties of holding an election during a pandemic. Republicans have alleged that the WEC allowed municipalities to receive private grants to fund election costs that amounted to bribery, approved absentee ballot drop boxes that amounted to “ballot harvesting” and gave accommodations to allow residents of nursing homes to cast absentee ballots without being exposed to outsiders in an effort to steal votes.
Numerous audits, reviews, investigations and lawsuits have affirmed that the 2020 election was safe, secure and legally won by Joe Biden.
Rep. Lee Snodgrass (D-Appleton) says the bill is another example of Republicans trying to change the rules when things don’t go their way, this time trying to give themselves the power to oversee the state’s elections.
“They’re constantly looking for ways to change the rules,” she says. “The attacks on WEC are the latest, when things don’t turn out their way they look for ways to change the rules of the game.”
I think until Wisconsin's temperature is not so hot on democracy and elections, we’re in a real risky spot if we’re all of a sudden dissolving the main body for advising elections.
– Rep. Lee Snodgrass (D-Appleton)
In the past, Democrats have had critiques of the WEC’s construction — mostly that the 3-3 divide can lead to failed deadlock votes when urgent action is required. Yet Snodgrass says it would be irresponsible to make changes to the state’s election system less than a year before a major election while issues of democracy and voting rights remain such a hot political topic in the state.
“I think we’re in real danger. On the one hand Republicans dissolved the GAB, now they want to dissolve WEC,” she says. “I think until Wisconsin’s temperature is not so hot on democracy and elections, we’re in a real risky spot if we’re all of a sudden dissolving the main body for advising elections. This is a disingenuous effort — another attempt to put power in the hands of the Republican majority. When it comes to democracy we have to be very, very careful.”
“In spite of our previous misgivings about certain things with WEC,” Snodgrass adds, “we can all agree they’ve done a very good job in extraordinary circumstances and Meagan Wolfe is somebody who has shepherded Wisconsin through a very difficult time.”
Jay Heck, executive director of voting rights advocacy organization Common Cause Wisconsin, says the introduction of the proposal will only serve to confuse voters ahead of next year’s elections.
Under the bill, the administrator of the WEC would need to work with the secretary of state to transition election responsibilities by June 30, 2024 —a little more than four months before the presidential election.
“The thing that’s most disturbing about it is it’s creating, deliberately, a chaotic, confusing situation going into an election year,” Heck says. “It’s the worst type of legislation, it’s cynical and damaging to democracy.”
Since the proposal was announced Monday, it has also received criticism from some Republicans worried about the fact that the current secretary of state is Democrat Sarah Godlewski.
Don Millis, the Republican chair of the WEC, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel the system for committee oversight of the secretary would likely be declared unconstitutional, giving Godlewski authority over elections without any checks.
“That the bill provides for mandatory oversight by standing election committees gives me no assurance. My concern is that as described, the oversight by the standing committees of the Legislature would likely be struck down by the current members of the state Supreme Court as a violation of the separation of powers,” Millis said. “Thus, Secretary Godlewski would be free from any restraint and administer elections in any manner she prefers.”
After the proposal’s release, a spokesperson for Gov. Tony Evers said he would veto the bill. The chair of the Assembly campaigns and elections committee, Rep. Scott Krug (R-Nekoosa), told the Journal Sentinel he would consider holding a public hearing on the bill.
“(It) does make some sense to have an elected representative of the people at the helm,” he said. “Just a lot of details to get right along the way.”
In this legislative session, Krug has made an effort to focus the Assembly committee on election proposals that can garner bipartisan support, bringing the temperature down in a committee that had been at the epicenter of much of Wisconsin’s election conspiracy theorism. Snodgrass told the Examiner she hopes Krug continues that practice because this proposal is unlikely to get any Democratic support.
If Evers vetoes the bill, Republicans have enough votes to override the veto in the Senate and are two votes shy in the Assembly. Should any Democrats be absent in the Assembly, a veto override vote could be held.
“I truly can’t speak for Chairman Krug but in general he’s been pretty forthcoming in bringing bills through committee that have bipartisan support and can be signed,” she says. “I’m hopeful he’ll stay true to his word when it comes to what he’s prioritizing but he’s one of a caucus of many.”
The deadline for legislators to co-sponsor the legislation is Dec. 15.
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