MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Who will oversee the 2024 presidential election in the critical battleground state of Wisconsin remains clouded with uncertainty just weeks before the state’s nonpartisan top elections official reaches the end of her term.
Republicans who control the state Legislature could finally have a chance to oust the elections head they’ve sparred with over conspiracy theories and install their own appointee. But a recent state Supreme Court ruling appears to offer her an avenue to get around Republicans and stay in office.
And that’s if Meagan Wolfe, administrator of the Wisconsin Elections Commission and one of the most respected election leaders in the nation, even wants to keep the job when her term ends on July 1. All across the country, election officials have left the profession after an unrelenting 2020 election cycle that brought unprecedented challenges related to the coronavirus pandemic but also an onslaught of harassment and death threats triggered by false claims about voting and elections.
Wolfe has declined to comment on whether she plans to seek reappointment.
The situation plays out as both parties are looking for every advantage they can get in Wisconsin, where the presidential winner has been determined by less than 1 percentage point in four of the last six elections. The outcome of the 2020 election in Wisconsin 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. The GOP-controlled Legislature has rejected attempts to decertify the results.
Unlike most states, where partisan secretaries of state run elections, Wisconsin’s top elections official is the nonpartisan administrator of the statewide elections commission. This person plays a crucial role in carrying out decisions from a panel of six partisan commissioners and giving guidance to the more than 1,800 local clerks who actually run the state’s elections.
The administrator can’t single-handedly reverse election results, or decide not to certify results, but a partisan appointee who embraces conspiracy theories about elections could cause significant trouble. Such an appointee could publicly promote election lies, push the limits of their freedom to interpret instructions from commissioners and hire partisan staff and legal counsel within the commission.
Wolfe got the job in 2018 after her predecessor was rejected by the Senate. How she handled the 2020 election angered Republicans, who had voted unanimously in 2019 to confirm her. If she seeks reappointment when her term ends, “there’s no way” she will be confirmed by the state Senate, said Senate President Chris Kapenga, a Republican. Senate rejection of her confirmation carries the effect of firing her.
“I will do everything I can to keep her from being reappointed,” Kapenga said. “I would be extremely surprised if she had any votes in the caucus.”
If Wolfe’s position becomes vacant, election commissioners can recommend a new administrator for Senate approval. If 45 days pass without a nomination, a legislative committee controlled by Republicans can appoint a temporary administrator for up to a year.
But for lawmakers to stall the process in order to install a partisan administrator is “extraordinarily hypothetical,” according to 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.
“I don’t see that happening,” she said. “I think cooler heads prevail in the Legislature.”
Republican Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu did not respond to an email asking about Wolfe’s reappointment. He also walked away from reporters after a Senate session in early June without taking questions.
In a statement, Wolfe called it “deeply disappointing that a small minority of lawmakers continue to misrepresent my work.”
“Lawmakers should assess my performance on the facts, not on tired, false claims,” Wolfe said.
If Wolfe wants to avoid the possibility of Senate Republicans rejecting her confirmation, she could decide to simply stay in office without asking for reappointment.
A conservative majority on the state Supreme Court ruled in June 2022 that lawmakers can’t replace an appointed official until their position is vacant and that the end of a term is not a vacancy. The sweeping 4-3 decision allowed Republicans to maintain conservative control of policy boards by delaying votes for Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ nominations.
That path would raise unexplored legal questions, but the ruling appears to imply that Wolfe could only be removed by impeachment or a vote by a majority of the elections commissioners. Senate Republicans in April gained the two-thirds supermajority they need to convict an office holder at an impeachment trial.
In addition to her more than 10 years working at the elections commission and its predecessor, Wolfe has served as president of the National Association of State Election Directors and chair of the bipartisan Electronic Registration Information Center, which helps states maintain accurate voter rolls and has been targeted by conspiracy theories.
“Administrator Wolfe has done an outstanding job,” said Democratic Commissioner Ann Jacobs. “Wisconsin has been lucky to have her in this position for our recent elections.”
Jacobs did not say whether she planned to vote for Wolfe’s reappointment.
Following President Joe Biden’s victory in 2020, Republicans called on Wolfe to resign for carrying out a commission decision to send absentee ballots to voters in nursing homes, instead of sending special voting deputies to assist them as state law requires. Nursing homes were not allowing visitors at that time because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think in some ways that they think I’m an easy target — I’m not,” Wolfe said in response.
Commissioner Bob Spindell, a Republican appointed by LeMahieu, said he would not be voting to reappoint Wolfe, even though “she’s been accused of a lot of things that were really not her doing.” Spindell, who served as a fake elector for Trump in 2020, came under fire in early 2023 for bragging about decreased turnout among Black and Hispanic voters in the Democratic stronghold of Milwaukee.
All four Republican candidates for governor in 2022 supported either abolishing or overhauling the elections commission, saying it had failed as an agency. In May, the Legislature’s powerful budget-writing committee killed a bipartisan plan to create a new office under the elections commission tasked with addressing voter complaints and building confidence in elections. Republicans instead signaled support for directing elections funding to local clerks.
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.