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RNC leaders, elections officials offer different takes on election integrity

Republican National Committee announces effort to recruit 5K volunteers to 'protect the vote,' while election officials and former GOP state lawmaker tout state's electoral system

Two ladies sit together at a table. One hands a ballot to a voter.
Lois Dukes, right, hands a voter a ballot while sitting next to fellow poll worker Barb Feran, center, on Tuesday, April 2, 2024, at the Beloit Public Library in Beloit, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

In less than a 24-hour period, two very different visions of election security were on display in southeastern Wisconsin. Republican National Committee leaders announced the recruitment of thousands of GOP poll watchers to “protect the vote,” while election officials and a former Republican state lawmaker touted the safety of the state’s electoral system. 

Monday evening, at the Wisconsin Young Republicans headquarters in Waukesha, Republican National Committee Chair Michael Whatley and Co-Chair Lara Trump announced the party will recruit 100,000 volunteers, including 5,000 in Wisconsin, to keep an eye on the polls in the coming presidential election. 

“We need lawyers and we need observers in every room where votes are being cast and votes are being counted,” Whatley said. 

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He and other speakers at the RNC rally criticized the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s liberal majority for overturning the former conservative majority’s ruling banning absentee ballot drop boxes in 2022.

“We don’t want those ballots going into drop boxes,” Whatley said. “We want them going into mailboxes, and we want them in by Election Day. Now this is not an election conspiracy. These are things that are supported by 75, 85 percent of all voters, including Republicans and Democrats and independents.”

Former Republican Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi told the crowd there needs to be legal experts on the ground “so we’re not waiting days, weeks or months later to address a problem.” 

“We want to send a message loud and clear,” Bondi said. “If you are a person who cheats in an election, we will find you, will track you down and we will prosecute you.” 

a person places a mail-in ballot in a drop box
In this Oct. 29, 2020, file photo, a person places a mail-in ballot in a drop box at the Clark County Election Department in Las Vegas. John Locher/AP Photo

Ever since his loss to Democratic President Joe Biden in 2020, former Republican President Donald Trump has continued to spread falsehoods about the election being stolen from him in states like Wisconsin. Biden defeated Trump by around 21,000 votes in that election. Recounts, court rulings and a nonpartisan state audit have all confirmed the results. 

The mood surrounding election integrity was altogether different Tuesday afternoon during a panel discussion hosted by the Milwaukee Rotary Club and the Wisconsin Alliance for Civic Trust featuring Wisconsin Elections Commission Administrator Meagan Wolfe, Milwaukee Election Commission head Paulina Gutierrez and former county clerk and Republican State Rep. Kathy Bernier of Lake Hallie. 

Bernier, who made headlines in 2021 when she pushed back on Trump’s election fraud claims, said data shows congressional GOP candidates got around 50,000 more votes than Trump in the 2020 election and that’s why he lost. She criticized former conservative Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman, who was appointed by Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, for not letting it go. 

“To carry this argument — or this disinformation, misinformation — for three solid years is just a bit too much when you’ve got all the evidence in front of you pointing to the majority of the election worked quite well,” Bernier said. 

When asked about the Supreme Court’s dropbox ruling, Bernier said she didn’t agree with the liberal majority but doesn’t have a problem with drop boxes themselves.

“So now I encourage the Wisconsin Election Commission to pass an administrative and emergency rule to make sure that all of the processes and procedures are in place,” Bernier said. “It’s not as simple as a drop box.” 

WEC Administrator Wolfe said the commission’s six voting members would discuss the court’s ruling and potential dropbox guidance during a Thursday meeting. She said the commission will have to look at best practices so that clerks know drop boxes are secure.

Wolfe also referenced years of attacks against her, claiming she was the reason drop boxes were used in Wisconsin during the 2020 election. She said any of those decisions are made by a vote of the commission’s three Democratic and three Republican appointees.

“That’s always been the case, but I think with the last round of dropbox decisions we saw a lot of misinformation where people were attributing that decision to me or commission staff,” Wolfe said. 

Wisconsin Elections Commission Administrator Meagan Wolfe.
Wisconsin Elections Commission Administrator Meagan Wolfe Sept. 7, 2023. (Andy Manis/Wisconsin Watch)

As for poll watchers, Wolfe encouraged all Wisconsinites to volunteer. 

“Here, anybody can observe at any polling place,” Wolfe said. “So, I often encourage people that are from other parts of the state that may be skeptical about some of our larger cities or other places and how they run elections. Go watch for yourself. You don’t have to take our word for it.”

Bernier agreed and said “the best way to convince somebody that we have a good electoral system, is by making them a part of that.”