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WEC’s Wolfe on the hot seat

By M.D. Kittle

MADISON — Wisconsin Elections Commission Administrator Meagan Wolfe was on the hot seat Wednesday, testifying about WEC’s contacts with left-leaning groups embedded in Green Bay and Milwaukee elections.

Wolfe seemed to have a little trouble keeping her story straight on her knowledge of a long-time Democratic operative who was intricately involved in Green Bay’s November election. The state’s elections chief told the committee Green Bay city officials never did explain the role of Michael Spitzer-Rubenstein, Wisconsin lead for the National Vote at Home Institute, and she confirmed that WEC staff never vetted the liberal activist or his colleagues.

Ultimately, Wolfe asserts, nothing in Wisconsin election law bars local governments from accepting the “help” of the groups, generously funded by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. There’s no law, Wolfe said, against any group — conservative or liberal — from doing the same.

But there is a law against such groups infiltrating or taking over local elections and doing the work of elected or appointed clerks. That’s precisely what appears to have happened in Green Bay and Milwaukee. And there’s evidence to suggest it happened in Madison, Racine, Kenosha and other Wisconsin cities that signed away their rights in exchange for the windfall of Zuckerberg money.

Meeting Michal Spitzer-Rubenstein

“WEC was not involved in municipalities applying for or receiving private grant funds, nor did the statutes give WEC authority to weigh in on such municipal matters,” Wolfe told the committee, reading from a prepared statement.

But WEC — at least its administrator — knew of the work that Spitzer-Rubenstein and his group were doing to “assist” big city election officials.

While Wolfe told committee members she “didn’t know (Spitzer-Rubenstein) from Adam,” emails obtained by Wisconsin Spotlight show she asked whether WEC could connect the long-time Democratic operative with other election officials in other cities.

In an Aug. 28 email, Claire Woodall-Vogg, director of the Milwaukee Election Commission, introduces Wolfe and two of her WEC colleagues to Spitzer-Rubenstein. Woodall Vogg writes that the election activist helped her create “inputs and outputs to help us determine staffing needs and staffing responsibilities at Central Count based on actual quantitative data.”

“They have created a tool that is extremely useful in visualizing the time certain processes take. They will also be helping the Election Commission with our voter education communications around absentee voting and the messaging we will use,” the Milwaukee elections official wrote. She didn’t include the fact that Spitzer-Rubenstein once ran email campaigns for Democratic congressional campaigns, for instance.

Wolfe promptly responded — within minutes.

“Thank you for sending along Claire. Would we be able to send your email to other large to medium-large jurisdictions to let them know about the resource and your experience? If other jurisdictions are interested, who should they reach out to at Vote at Home?” the state elections administrator wrote.

Wolfe acknowledged she sent the email on to four municipalities, including Green Bay.

When pressed by the committee, Wolfe said WEC received tens of thousands of communications about the 2020 elections and she did not remember who Spitzer-Rubenstein was.

But Woodall-Vogg’s gushing email wasn’t Wolfe’s first introduction to Spitzer-Rubenstein. He emailed the WEC administrator a few days before, introducing himself.

“I’m Michael Spitzer-Rubenstein, the Wisconsin State Lead for the National Vote at Home Institute. You may have already spoken with Amber McReynolds or Hillary Hall; we’re working with the Center for Technology and Civic Life to provide free election assistance to Wisconsin municipalities,” Spitzer-Rubenstein wrote in the Aug. 25 email. 

CTCL is the left-leaning hub of activist of a network of voting and election groups. It received $350 million from Zuckerberg and his wife to deliver “free election assistance.” But the assistance came with strings attached. If the cities failed to abide by the contract terms they could lose all of their CTCL grant money.

Spitzer-Rubenstein wanted 30 minutes to make his pitch to Wolfe. He checked back in on Sept. 1. (Emails show he was  persistent). Wolfe sent an email to Reid Magney, WEC’s public information officer and Richard Rydecki, deputy administrator asking, “Do we want to set up a meeting? Thoughts about who would be involved?”

“We probably do. Just a question of when. Maybe later next week?” Magney responded a day later.

Wolfe told the committee WEC never did meet with Spitzer-Rubenstein.

No formal vetting process 

Wolfe and her staff never looked into the background of the people offering “free election assistance.”

“Is there some sort of vetting process you could suggest clerks go through before they jump up and say, ‘Yeah, we’ll take your free money,’ state Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt (R-Fond du Lac), a member of the elections committee, asked Wolfe.

“No, there’s not a formal vetting process,” the administrator acknowledged.

Had WEC vetted the people on the emails offering to help, they would have discovered Spitzer-Rubenstein’s extremely partisan background. Or they would have learned that Hillary Hall, also with the Vote at Home Institute, was a far left liberal clerk in Boulder County, Colo. who had been sued twice for failing to allow designated election watchers observe her office’s handling of mail-in ballots. Amber McReynolds chief executive officer of the Vote at Home Institute with a liberal activist resume, recently was nominated by President Joe Biden to the Postal Board of Governors.

None of that seemed to bother the nonpartisan Wisconsin Elections Commission.

No matter, Wolfe testified. There’s nothing WEC could have done about it.

“WEC does not have jurisdiction over other statutory provisions that may be related to municipal funding or grants, hiring decisions or questions related to compatibility of offices,” she read from her prepared statement.

Yet, she insists WEC staff worked to “ensure local officials had the information and resources they needed to administer a successful election in November.”

Pressed about Spitzer-Rubenstein’s concerning level of involvement in Green Bay’s election, she said she was assured by the city that the activist was not doing anything that would violate election law. But Wolfe acknowledged city officials never clarified what Spitzer-Rubenstein’s role was. He was described as a consultant and an election observer. It’s clear by the emails that Spitzer-Rubenstein, equipped with laptop and phone at Central Count, was no election observer in the traditional sense. He was answering questions from poll workers and directing election activities. Internal communications show Spitzer-Rubenstein was told to leave Central Count on election night, only after citizen observers raised questions about his involvement.

“The most alarming thing was seeing Michael Spitzer-Rubenstein had four of the five keys to the facility (where the absentee ballots were stored),” said committee Chairwoman Janel Brandtjen (R-Menomonee Falls.) She said Spitzer-Rubenstein noted that he was an observer on the Central Count log. “That makes a lot of us concerned about what role outside groups have during elections.”

The committee is just getting started on its investigation into last year’s elections, with more hearings to come.

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