By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — With a new state audit painting a “grim picture of the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC) and their careless administration of election law,” Senate leadership has authorized opening an additional investigation into the 2020 presidential election.
Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers say the troubling findings underscore the urgent need for the election law reforms that Democrat Gov. Tony Evers vetoed earlier this year.
“When a state agency refuses to follow the law, especially one overseeing our elections, it should concern every Wisconsinite regardless of party,” said Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg). “We will assess the full impact of WEC’s deficiencies and determine the best course of action for the future of election administration given the now documented failures of the current administration and staff.”
On Friday, the Legislative Audit Bureau released its findings from a lengthy review of a raft of complaints surrounding the administration of November’s presidential election. Concerns included everything from ballot corrections to outright fraud.
While much of the media glommed on to a quote from Audit Committee co-chair Sen. Robert Cowles (R-Green Bay) that the “election was largely safe and secure,” the audit found a host of troubling issues, particularly in how WEC twisted and manipulated election law.
The Audit Bureau made dozens of recommendations, many of them “urgent and significant,” as Cowles noted, that are raising more alarm bells about election integrity in Wisconsin.
In addition to pursuing the LAB’s recommendations for legislative action, Senate leadership says it has authorized the Senate Committee on Elections, Election Process Reform and Ethics to conduct an additional investigation relating to the findings of the audit, including the city of Madison’s refusal to provide documents and ballots to the audit bureau in the course of their investigation. The investigation will be conducted by Senate staff.
Two other probes are ongoing; one led by the Assembly Committee on Campaigns and Elections and another by former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman.
“I was disappointed to see that an elected official tasked with the administration of fair and transparent elections would refuse their duty to provide requested information necessary to prove they did their job adequately,” said Senate President Chris Kapenga (R-Delafield). “That is unacceptable.”
According to the report, the audit bureau reviewed 14,710 absentee ballot certificates. Auditors attempted to review certificates in 30 municipalities, including the 10 municipalities where the most absentee ballots were cast in the general election, the 10 municipalities where the highest proportions of absentee ballots were cast in that election, and 10 municipalities selected randomly from counties other than those in which the first 20 municipalities were located.
“However, the City of Madison clerk declined to allow us to physically handle the certificates,” the audit states. City Clerk Maribeth Witzel-Behl, interestingly, told auditors that her office was responsible for “maintaining the chain of custody of election records and ensuring these records are not inadvertently altered or damaged.” Chain of custody and whether election records were altered are precisely what the audit was examining.
It’s the latest resistance movement from elections officials at WEC and in Wisconsin’s largest and Democrat heavy cities. Clerks and mayors in Milwaukee, Madison, Green Bay, Racine and Kenosha have refused to turn over election records or threatened to defy subpoenas. Evers has advised elections officials “get lawyered” up. They continue to insist that the presidential election was above board, even as they resist handing over critical documents.
While the audit doesn’t appear to have uncovered definitive evidence that would overturn Democrat Joe Biden’s 20,000-plus vote victory over Republican Donald Trump, it does raise some serious questions about chain of custody.
As state Sen. Duey Stroebel (R-Saukville) notes, the audit details numerous areas where the Elections Commission and some local elections officials failed to comply with the law. Many of the Audit Bureau’s 48 recommendations covered areas like absentee ballots, proper maintenance of voter rolls and ballot processing — the same issues Stroebel and other Republican lawmakers took up in a series of election reform bills that Evers killed.
“In the face of strong findings of WEC changing election law through guidance at odds with statute, WEC Administrator Meagan Wolfe seemed to miss these findings completely and simply complained WEC didn’t get an advance copy of the audit findings,” Stroebel said. The audit was leaked Friday before the full report was publicly issued.
“The combination of LAB’s findings, and WEC’s apparent stubborn refusal to comprehend those findings, should call into question everyone’s faith in WEC’s current leadership,” Stroebel added.
Some say the audit further confirms the six-member Elections Commission (made up of three Democrats and three Republicans) needs to be disbanded.
“This audit clearly raises concerns about WEC not following the law last year,” said Chris Reader, executive vice president of the Institute for Reforming Government. “The Commission should be scrapped. It’s time to abolish WEC and transfer elections administration to an elected official that is accountable to voters. It’s time to give power back to the people to restore confidence in elections among Wisconsin residents.”
IRG has proposed turning election administration authority over to Wisconsin’s Secretary of State, an elected official “directly accountable to voters.”
State Rep. Janel Brandtjen (R-Menomonee Falls), co-chair of the Assembly committee investigating last year’s elections, said the audit makes it clear that it’s time Wisconsin “take off the rose-colored glasses.”
“The Wisconsin Election Commission failed to properly manage voter registration, train clerks, or comply with security issues on electronic voting equipment. To make matters worse, 48,554 indefinitely confined individuals who had not previously voted with an ID or did not have a photo ID on file, voted on Election Day,” Brandtjen said. “The integrity of the 2020 election has been shattered.”