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Wisconsin Spotlight Investigation: What WEC Knew

About the investigation:

Hundreds of pages of new emails and other documents obtained by Wisconsin Spotlight show that a longtime Democratic operative and his left-leaning election group were embedded in Milwaukee’s November election preparations and administration.

The Wisconsin Elections Commission not only knew of the outside group’s infiltration in the elections in Milwaukee, Madison, Green Bay, Kenosha and Madison, they applauded it. The commission’s administrator offered to spread the word of the influential groups, which were generously funded by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

The new emails show:

  • Milwaukee elections administrator Claire Woodall-Vogg connecting top Wisconsin Elections Commission officials with Michael Spitzer-Rubenstein, Wisconsin lead for the National Vote at Home Institute.
  • Spitzer-Rubenstein telling WEC administrators that he can help city clerks with their elections, including “curing [correcting] absentee ballots, signature verification, etc.”
  • WEC Administrator Meagan Wolfe expressing interest in connecting the Vote at Home Institute with election officials in “large to medium-large” cities.

By M.D. Kittle

MADISON — Michael Spitzer-Rubenstein and his left-leaning National Vote at Home Institute were intricately involved in Green Bay’s November election, according to a Wisconsin Spotlight special investigation.

Now we’re getting a clearer picture of the election “help” the long-time Democratic operative was providing to other elections officials in “large to medium large” communities around the state — with buy-in from the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC).

New emails obtained by Wisconsin Spotlight show Milwaukee Election Commission Executive Director Claire Woodall-Vogg gushing about Spitzer-Rubenstein and the National Vote at Home Institute to commission officials. WEC Administrator Meagan Wolfe sounded sold on the third-party organization and wanted to know if the state Elections office could spread the word to others.

Wolfe and her WEC staff appear to be all onboard with the work and the resources outside groups like the Vote and Home Institute were providing to Wisconsin’s largest cities. There is never a mention in the scores of emails of WEC officials expressing concern or even asking a question about Spitzer-Rubenstein’s partisan background —  or the fact that the “resources” provided came from liberal groups generously funded by Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Nor do they express concerns about the type of work Spitzer-Rubenstein did, including helping correct or “cure” absentee ballots.

’Tremendous resource’

In an email sent on Aug. 28  Woodall-Vogg reaches out to Wolfe to introduce her to the services of Spitzer-Rubenstein and Hillary Hall, senior advisor to state and local election officials for the National Vote at Home Institute. She thought WEC and other clerks around the state could benefit, as the Milwaukee Election Commission had.

Woodall-Vogg notes that she had been working with Hall since May, a couple of months before the Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL) announced it was handing out a combined $6.3 million in election assistance grants to Milwaukee, Madison, Green Bay, Kenosha and Racine. CTCL received hundreds of millions of dollars from Zuckerberg and his wife to distribute to the nation’s largest cities and surest Democratic strongholds. Milwaukee received over $2.1 million.

In the email, Woodall-Vogg pitches Hall, beaming that Hall was a “tremendous resource in helping me decide to seek out a vendor to automate our absentee assembly process, as well as selecting drop boxes early on that were secure and met all of the requirements the WEC put forth last week.”

And Woodall-Vogg sings the praises of Spitzer-Rubenstein, writing 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.

What Woodall-Vogg really wanted to convey was the same kind of sales pitch that emails show Spitzer-Rubenstein and other Zuckerberg-funded third-party groups used in Green Bay and Brookfield.

“They have an extremely useful communications toolkit for clerks with zero resources to those that are hiring communication firms,” she wrote. Spitzer-Rubenstein and Hall are copied on the email, which was sent to Wolfe, WEC Public Information Officer Reid Magney and Richard Rydecki, deputy administrator of the state Elections Commission.

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.

Woodall-Vogg said Spitzer-Rubenstein was the guy, and she would be “happy to provide a reference.”

“They are extremely respectful of time, are not ‘selling’ anything, and have incredible resources,” the Milwaukee elections official wrote.

Woodall-Vogg didn’t mention that those “resources” came with lots of strings attached, including grant funding clawback provisions if cities failed to follow the terms of the contract.

Constitutional problems

Erick Kaardal, an appellate law attorney, said the conditions in the contract violate constitutional protections on election fairness and transparency.

“The city clerk has charge and supervision of the election. Once the city council appoints the clerk they’re supposed to leave the clerk alone and let her do her job,” said Kaardal, who represents the Wisconsin Voters Alliance, which has challenged the constitutionality of election procedures in Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin following November’s election.

Even clerks or elections administrators like Woodall-Vogg who enthusiastically welcomed Spitzer-Rubenstein’s services, can’t transfer their responsibilities to others, the attorney said.

The strings attached to CTCL’s funding, Kaardal said, allowed groups like the National Vote and Home Institute to “usurp” the clerk’s constitutional authority, which no one else can claim. Not the city council, the mayor, and certainly not outside groups. Emails from Green Bay show Spitzer-Rubenstein engaged in election administration duties that are the domain of the clerk’s office. The emails also show a city clerk who grew so frustrated by the constant meddling and bullying by the mayor’s staff, the ad hoc election committee, and the outside groups that she quit.

In a follow-up email, Spitzer-Rubenstein thanks Woodall-Vogg for introducing him to the Wisconsin Elections Commission administrators. He informs them that he has meetings scheduled with elections officials in Madison, Green Bay, Kenosha Racine, Eau Claire and Wauwatosa. But his group is “certainly interested in other jurisdictions, as well.”

“We’re working on a Wisconsin-specific version of our communications toolkit with language about voter ID and absentee witness requirements informed by behavioral science,” the activist wrote. “It would be great to do Zoom trainings for clerks about communications/voter education, operational planning, and could also facilitate sessions on more technical issues like curing absentee ballots, signature verification, etc.”

‘Consultants’

Perhaps Spitzer-Rubenstein’s email should have been a red flag for Wolfe, WEC’s administrator. State law prohibits anyone but the elector from correcting or adding missing information to the absentee ballot envelope. WEC has interpreted the law to allow local elections officials to assist. There is nothing in the law or WEC’s interpretation that says a long-time Democratic operative can lend a hand in the process.

When Brown County Clerk Sandy Juno confronted WEC about Spitzer-Rubenstein’s involvement, staff attorney Nathan Judnic said the commission was aware that Green Bay was using “consultants from outside groups” on Election Day. Judnic said there was nothing that would prohibit Spitzer-Rubenstein from assisting, but the city’s election inspectors and the absentee board of canvassers should be calling the shots. Judnic said he instructed the city’s deputy clerk to “reach out to the central count folks and reinforce” his guidance.

Juno said she observed Spitzer-Rubenstein taking a hands-on role at central count. Emails back up Juno’s report. She said what photographs confirm, that Spitzer-Rubenstein was using a laptop and printer from the counting site and was on his cellphone throughout the night.

“I observed him interacting with the poll workers and advising them on matters,” Juno wrote to Judnic in an email on election night.

“I believe the central count location is tainted by the influence of a person working for an outside organization affecting the election,” the county clerk, who has since retired, added. “Please explain how grant money from a private outside organization and employee from a private outside organization does not violate election laws for free and fair elections?”

 

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