Election deniers rail at Wisconsin Senate hearing over firing top state elections official

Onlookers turned out in force at a Wisconsin Senate elections committee hearing, with many repeating debunked conspiracy theories about the 2020 election.

Associated Press

August 30, 2023

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Michael Gableman and Tim Ramthun sit in a room with other people seated behind them, with an out-of-focus head of another person in the foreground.

Michael Gableman, a former Wisconsin Supreme Court justice who led a fruitless, 14-month probe of the 2020 vote in the state, and Tim Ramthun, a failed Republican gubernatorial candidate and former state lawmaker who was disciplined by the Legislature for challenging the results of the 2020 presidential election, attended and testified at a state Senate elections committee hearing on Aug. 29, 2023. (Credit: PBS Wisconsin)

AP News

By Harm Verhuizen, AP

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Election skeptics aired their grievances against Wisconsin’s top elections official on Aug. 29 at a hearing Democrats and the Legislature’s nonpartisan attorneys said should never have been held.

Republicans who control the Legislature called the hearing to consider whether to reappoint Wisconsin Elections Commission Administrator Meagan Wolfe.

The Aug. 29 hearing was raucous at times, with conspiracy theorists repeating widely debunked claims about the 2020 election being rigged in favor of President Joe Biden. At times the audience burst into applause, boos or laughter as officials who oversee elections defended Wolfe and the integrity of Wisconsin’s procedures.

The bipartisan Elections Commission, which is separate from the Legislature, deadlocked in June over whether to nominate Wolfe for another term. Three Republicans voted in favor, while three Democrats abstained in hopes of blocking the next step, which would have been sending Wolfe’s nomination to the Senate for final confirmation.

However, Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu said he interpreted the commission’s 3-0 vote as a unanimous nomination, despite it being one vote shy of a majority.

GOP Senate leaders have promised to fire Wolfe.

She declined to testify at the Aug. 29 Senate hearing, citing a letter from Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul saying lawmakers did not have the authority to go forward because her nomination didn’t get a majority of votes from the six-person Elections Commission.

The Legislature’s own attorneys also contested LeMahieu’s interpretation of the Election Commission vote.

Wolfe has become a focal point for conspiracy theorists who falsely claim she helped rig the 2020 presidential race in Wisconsin, even though multiple reports and reviews found the election was fair and the results accurate.

Biden defeated Trump by nearly 21,000 votes in Wisconsin, an outcome that has withstood two partial recounts, a nonpartisan audit, a conservative law firm’s review and numerous state and federal lawsuits.

Nevertheless, the opportunity to testify against Wolfe’s reappointment drew some of the most prominent members of the state’s thriving election conspiracy movement, including Michael Gableman, the former state Supreme Court justice who led a fruitless, 14-month investigation into 2020 election results; Harry Wait, who was charged with fraudulently requesting the absentee ballots of elected officials; Tim Ramthun, a failed gubernatorial candidate and former state lawmaker who was disciplined by the Legislature for challenging the results of the 2020 presidential election; and Janel Brandtjen, the former chair of the Assembly elections committee who used her position to promote election lies.

Wolfe is one of the most respected elections officials in the nation. She has served more than 10 years at the Wisconsin Elections Commission and the body that preceded it. She also 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.

Several local election officials and voting rights advocates testified Aug. 29 in support of Wolfe’s reappointment.

Rock County Clerk Lisa Tollefson voiced concern that removing Wolfe would mean getting rid of an experienced, guiding hand for Wisconsin’s more than 1,800 municipal clerks who actually run elections, many of whom are new and inexperienced. Her concerns echo those of national elections experts looking ahead to the 2024 presidential race in Wisconsin, where the deciding margins are routinely razor thin.

Republican Sen. Daniel Knodl, who chairs the Senate elections committee, said he had not yet decided whether to schedule a vote on sending Wolfe’s reappointment to the full Senate for consideration.

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.

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