By M.D. Kittle
A Racine County Sheriff Department investigation alleges the Wisconsin Elections Commission “shattered” state election law, violations that led to the forced or manipulated voting of cognitively impaired senior citizens.
The findings of the investigation, following on the heels of a state audit that found laws ignored or not followed by the Elections Commission and local elections officials, prompted several Republican lawmakers to call for WEC officials to step down, even decertification of Wisconsin’s November 2020 election results.
Sheriff Christopher Schmaling at a press conference Thursday called on Attorney General Josh Kaul to investigate the commission’s “clear” violation of the state’s Special Voting Deputy (SPD) law, which he said compromised election integrity.
“This needs the Attorney General’s attention. He should launch an immediate investigation into the WEC and the harm they have done to all these individuals and restore integrity and trust in our election system,” the sheriff said.
Schmaling alleges WEC effectively directed retirement homes and residential care facilities to commit voter fraud and he is forwarding the investigation’s findings to the Racine County District Attorney.
The sheriff, a Republican, probably won’t get much cooperation from Kaul, a highly partisan Democrat who recently sued to stymie legislative investigations into last year’s presidential election. He stressed the investigation was not political and does not seek to overturn the results of an election that saw Democrat Joe Biden narrowly defeat Republican Donald Trump in battleground Wisconsin.
The sheriff’s department’s lengthy investigation underscored what WEC critics have long believed: that commissioners repeatedly broke the law when they barred Special Voting Deputies from the state’s nursing homes and assisted living facilities. The voting deputies assist long-term care facility residents with voting.
In the absence of SPDs, nursing home staff members took over the job of helping residents vote, as directed by WEC — in violation of election law.
The sheriff’s department probe found eight long-term care facility residents who were or are severely cognitively impaired that voted in last year’s election. In many cases, the individuals could not even recognize their family members, according to Racine County Sgt. Michael Luell, lead investigator in the case.
The alleged abuses occurred at Ridgewood Care Center. Investigators followed up on a complaint of a woman, identified as Judy. She said her mother, who was in a state of steep mental decline at the time, was assisted by a staff member in casting an absentee ballot. The family said Judy had not asked for an absentee ballot. The families of the other seven residents told investigators their loved ones didn’t have the cognitive ability to vote or request a ballot. Many hadn’t voted since 2012.
“An activities aid said she was informed that if the resident didn’t have mental clarity (to vote) they were instructed to point them at the TV, turn on the news and come back in a day or two to see if they were lucid enough to vote,” Luell said.
In suspending SVD access, Elections commissioners claimed they were following federal and state guidance restricting visitors at long-term care facilities during the pandemic. But guidance cannot supersede election law, the sheriff’s department said.
Dean Knudson, one of five commissioners to vote for suspending SVD access, has acknowledged WEC was breaking the law.
“We will be essentially telling the clerks to break the law,” Knudson said at a WEC meeting earlier this year. He is one of three Republicans on the six-member commission. The other members are Democrats.
Supporters of WEC’s decision say the agency was only trying to protect highly vulnerable populations from a deadly virus. The health concern of admitting outside voting deputies who could spread COVID in nursing homes outweighed the law and constitutional protections, they assert.
But Ridgewood Care Center took in nearly 900 outside visitors from March 13, 2020 through the end of November of that year, according to visitor logs tracked by the sheriff’s department. The list includes everyone from the Orkin man to elevator maintenance workers to the fish tank cleaning guy. Even delivery service DoorDash stopped by.
If fast-food takeout drivers could enter the nursing home, why not people charged with the sacred duty of helping seniors vote, Luell said.
WEC Administrator Meagan Wolfe said the voting deputy issue is old news.
“The discussion about Special Voting Deputy access during the COVID-19 pandemic is over 18 months old and has occurred entirely in public meetings,” she said in an email to Empower Wisconsin. She added that agency staff cannot speak on behalf of commissioners without their guidance to do so. Wolfe pointed to WEC’s website for more information on the topic.
The sheriff said his agency is shedding light on what he believes to be a statewide violation of election law. He suspects similar voter manipulation was going on at senior care facilities in many of Wisconsin’s 72 counties, and he urged his fellow sheriffs to investigate.
“You will see election statute was not just broken it was shattered by the Wisconsin Elections Commission.” Schmaling said.
Republican lawmakers called for heads to roll.
“Clearly there is a severe mismanagement of WEC, and a new administrator is needed. I am calling for the resignation of Meagan Wolfe as Elections Commission Administrator,” said Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester), who has signed off on two of three legislative investigations into WEC and myriad election integrity concerns surrounding the presidential election.
“Cover-ups and complacency with law-breaking are red flags Wisconsinites cannot ignore,” Vos said.
State Rep. Ramthun (R-Campbellsport) is calling for the decertification of “Wisconsin’s November 2020 election results by reclaiming its ten electoral ballots.”
Sen. Van Wanggaard (R-Racine) said the latest revelations only underscore that the commission is “consciously deciding to ignore the law.”
“When the people who are in charge of enforcing the law actively choose to ignore it, they lose ALL credibility,” he said. “There needs to be mass resignations at WEC and prosecutions where appropriate. WEC’s reputation is damaged beyond repair.”