Wisconsin Republicans file open records lawsuit over 'Milwaukee Votes 2022'

The Milwaukee lawsuit seeks records related to a get-out-the-vote effort in the city, and is one of several filed by the state Republican Party and a conservative law firm that focus on 2022 campaign issues.

Associated Press

September 28, 2022 • Southeast Region

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A sign reading Vote Here and City of Milwaukee with a U.S. flag graphic and an arrow is placed in front of a masonry and brick building with two sets of double doors.

A "Vote Here" sign points towards the doors of a city of Milwaukee polling place on Nov. 3, 2020. (Credit: PBS Wisconsin)

AP News

By Scott Bauer, Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Republican Party of Wisconsin has filed a pair of lawsuits six weeks before the election that seek records from the administrations of Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson related to issues that have been campaign fodder for conservatives.

The lawsuits were filed Sept. 27 and come the day after a conservative law firm, the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, sued the state parole commission seeking records about paroles that have been granted.

The lawsuit targeting Johnson and Claire Woodall-Vogg, executive director of Milwaukee’s election commission, seeks communications between them and GPS Impact, a liberal communications firm that has helped Democrats, related to a privately funded voter outreach effort in the city. Republicans have alleged that the “Milwaukee Votes 2022” campaign is an illegal get-out-the-vote campaign orchestrated by Democrats.

Johnson’s office has stressed that the effort is entirely made up of nonpartisan efforts to register voters and encourage voting. GPS Impact is advising nonprofits running the program but is not receiving taxpayer money from the city or any other entity, said Melissa Baldauff, an employee of the group. Baldauff previously worked in Evers’ administration and for the Wisconsin Democratic Party.

The Republican Party filed an open records request with the city on Sept. 13. According to the lawsuit, a city attorney responded on Sept. 19 that it was working on it as part of 19 requests that had come in related to the get-out-the-vote program. Republicans allege that the defendants have broken the state’s open records law by failing to “swiftly” provide the records.

Wisconsin’s open records law requires a response to requests “as soon as practicable and without delay,” but it often takes weeks or months for records to be provided. The time it takes to respond depends on a variety of factors, including the scope and complexity of any given request.

“Many records requests take a lot longer than two weeks to be satisfied,” said Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council. “They’re not supposed to be delaying, but it’s not always instantaneous.”

Republicans allege that not responding to the request as of Sept. 27 “casts a dark cloud over the City’s administration of the election and its election-related efforts, which only risks proliferating public concerns about the upcoming election by withholding or delaying records pertinent to an extremely time sensitive issue.”

Jeff Fleming, a spokesperson for the mayor, said he expected the requested documents to be provided within days.

“The fact that the Republicans have rushed out a news release on a lawsuit — based on a records request submitted just days ago — suggests this is more about political posturing than it is about a substantive legal issue,” Fleming said.

The other Republican lawsuit targeting Evers was filed in Waukesha County Circuit Court. It seeks records that Republicans requested in June related to communications involving the governor and his chief of staff related to the veterans home in Union Grove. Republican U.S. Rep. Bryan Steil, whose southeastern Wisconsin district includes the village, has been critical of the treatment that veterans receive at the facility.

Spokespeople for Evers and the Department of Veterans Affairs did not immediately reply to messages seeking comment on the lawsuit.

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