MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A fight over whether Wisconsin’s top elections official will keep her job has potential implications for the 2024 presidential contest in a perennial battleground where statewide margins are typically razor thin.
Meagan Wolfe, the nonpartisan administrator of the Wisconsin Elections Commission, has been a target of conspiracy theorists who falsely claim she was part of a plan to rig the 2020 vote to secure President Joe Biden’s victory over Donald Trump in the state.
Republicans who control the state Legislature have called for Wolfe to resign over how she ran the 2020 contest, even though multiple reports and reviews found the election was fair and the results accurate. Democratic election commissioners are attempting to work around lawmakers to keep Wolfe in office indefinitely after her term ended on July 1.
Both sides rely on arguments that raise unanswered legal questions and could take months to resolve through the courts.
Meanwhile, election observers say the stakes are high for a presidential contest that will be fiercely contested and where election officials and workers still face unrelenting pressure, harassment and threats over the 2020 election.
“The conspiracy theorists are going to jump at anything,” said Kevin Kennedy, who was Wisconsin’s top elections official for 34 years before retiring in 2016 from the board that preceded the elections commission.
If Wolfe’s position as administrator remains disputed in 2024, it could become the basis for lawsuits and challenges to the guidance she issues to local clerks. Even though Wolfe has little authority to do more than carry out decisions from the bipartisan commission, she has taken the brunt of the blame for commission actions in 2020.
Biden won Wisconsin by nearly 21,000 votes, an outcome that has withstood two partial recounts, a nonpartisan audit, a conservative law firm’s review, numerous state and federal lawsuits, and a Republican-ordered review that found no evidence of widespread fraud before the investigator was fired.
That hasn’t stopped election skeptics from falsely requesting the ballots of elected officials and military voters in attempts to find vulnerabilities or from mounting campaigns for statewide office based on election lies.
As much as it’s been discredited, there is a significant group of people who have bought into it,” Kennedy said. “They have the ear of enough senators to get them to rethink why you would not reappoint one of the best people that’s ever been working in elections.”
A vote on Wolfe’s future ended in partisan deadlock at the end of June when the state’s six election commissioners, who are evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, couldn’t reach a majority decision. All three Republicans voted to reappoint her, but the three Democratic commissioners abstained in an attempt to prevent Wolfe’s reappointment from going to the Republican-controlled state Senate for confirmation.
Senate Republicans tried to force a vote, anyway, taking up the issue on June 28 in a move Democrats said was illegal. State law says four votes are needed on the commission before a nomination can go to the Legislature.
A 2022 state Supreme Court ruling cited by Democratic commissioners appears to allow Wolfe to continue as administrator even after her term ends, but Senate rejection would carry the effect of firing her. Republicans have used the court’s ruling to keep their appointees in control of state boards past the end of their terms.
Don Millis, the Republican chair of the elections commission, warned against trying to do the same for Wolfe.
“It’s more than a bad look. It’s going to create problems for us and for elections officials across the state,” he said before the vote.
The elections commission helps to guide the more than 1,800 local clerks who actually run Wisconsin elections. Those offices don’t have the same security measures and resources to respond to threats and distrust that the statewide elections commission does, Millis said. Since 2020, local elections officials have been overwhelmed by records requests and an unprecedented number of voter complaints.
“You can argue that this is legally correct, but that’s not the point,” Millis said of Democrats’ push to avoid Senate confirmation. “The point is that we’re only going to incentivize these grifters.”
Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos downplayed the fight over who will oversee elections in 2024. The Senate should proceed with a vote on confirming Wolfe sooner rather than later, he said.
“I don’t want to wait until the last moment when it appears that this is chaotic but it really isn’t,” Vos said, adding that there are “lots of qualified people who could run elections” other than Wolfe.
Not everyone agrees.
“I don’t think they’re going to find anyone as knowledgeable and educated with Wisconsin elections law as she is,” said Kathy Bernier, a former Republican state senator and county election official who chaired the Senate elections committee during the 2020 election and was outspoken against claims of election fraud.
“They need somebody to make the boogeyman, and they’re making her the boogeyman,” she said.
Wolfe is among many state and local election officials who have found themselves targeted since the 2020 election. They have endured harassment and death threats, a contentious public seeking access to voting machines and election records that in some cases don’t exist, and hostile elected officials demanding changes to how elections are run.
“They are experiencing political pressures particularly from their governing authorities, their county boards, their county election boards who are often harassing them with disinformation-fueled claims,” said David Becker, a former U.S. Department of Justice official who now leads the Center for Election Innovation and Research.
The center is nearly two years into helping coordinate a program that provides free legal support to election officials. Becker said the effort is seeing more requests than ever, which is noteworthy considering the 2020 election was more than two and a half years ago and the next election isn’t for another 16 months. That underscores the lasting impact of the false claims about the 2020 presidential election, he said.
Some election workers have chosen to leave. In Nevada, 10 of the state’s 17 election offices saw significant staff turnover between the 2020 and 2022 elections.
This has prompted concerns about a lack of experience running elections along with worries that those coming into the positions may be more partisan than their predecessors and open to taking steps that could undermine the process.
That’s a growing concern in Wisconsin with the uncertain fate of the election director. If the Senate rejects Wolfe’s reappointment, the commission would have 45 days to name a new appointee before a legislative committee controlled by Republicans could choose their own interim administrator to oversee elections.
“It will be difficult enough if there are new or inexperienced election officials running these elections even if they are doing their best,” Becker said. “And that could cause some minor problems that could then be further leveraged by election deniers to create doubt and incite violence.”
Associated Press writer Christina A. Cassidy in Atlanta contributed to this report.
Harm Venhuizen is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.