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Milwaukee elections director replaced just 6 months before presidential election

Paulina Gutiérrez will replace Claire Woodall, who was a target over false claims about 2020's election

Claire Woodall-Vogg speaks on the phone from her office at City Hall
Claire Woodall-Vogg, executive director of the Milwaukee Election Commission, speaks on the phone from her office at City Hall during the partisan primary on Aug. 11, 2020. Will Cioci/Wisconsin Watch

Milwaukee’s mayor has replaced the city’s top election official just six months before the presidential election.

Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson announced the shakeup in a statement Monday morning. Johnson picked Paulina Gutiérrez to replace Claire Woodall as the executive director of the Milwaukee Election Commission.

“Paulina’s integrity and capabilities are ideally suited to this position,” Johnson wrote. “She will lead the office at an important juncture when public scrutiny of the work of the department will be extremely high. I have confidence in her, and I will make certain the department has the resources it needs to fulfill its duties.”

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Woodall led the city through an election during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. She was also a target for some who falsely claimed the 2020 presidential election was rigged.

In an email, Jeff Fleming, a spokesperson for the mayor, said a “number of factors” led to the change.

“Claire wrote a new job description for herself 11 months ago to handle community engagement, exclusively,” Fleming wrote. “That job was offered to her and she did not accept it.”

 Gutiérrez will now oversee the staff and operations of the Election Commission, according to the statement. She’s been with the office for more than a year as she formerly held the position of deputy director.

Gutiérrez has held “management positions” previously in state and local government, according to the statement.  She’s a graduate of Alverno College and earned a master of arts degree from Marquette University.

Her nomination will need to be approved by the Milwaukee Common Council.

Johnson made the announcement as part of a slew of other leadership and administration changes Monday morning. In April, he was sworn in for a new term after he won his reelection bid.

Trent Miner, the clerk for Wood County and the president of the Wisconsin County Clerks Association, said clerks across the state are already preparing for the August primary election. He said Gutiérrez’s prior role of deputy director will help her keep those preparations on track.

“Any amount of experience will certainly help her in her new role,” he said.

Brookfield city clerk Michelle Luedtke said there are a number of steps election officials have to complete before an election, including making sure there are enough poll workers to work an election.

“The steps themselves are not hard — but the volume alone is what is daunting,” Luedtke said in an email.

Clerks across the state and nation have been dealing with enhanced scrutiny regarding elections in recent years as well. While appearing as a witness in the trial for Kimberly Zapata, the former Milwaukee election official who was sentenced last week for election fraud, Woodall testified that her office was facing threats of violence.

Miner said since the 2020 presidential election, there are around 30 new county clerks across the state who will now be administering the upcoming presidential election.

“They have never administered a presidential (election) before,” Miner said about those new clerks.

Miner has more than 20 years of election experience. He said he’s never seen anything like the current climate.

“Enhanced scrutiny, looking over the shoulders all the time,” Miner said were some reasons he believes more clerks are moving on.