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Wisconsin Elections Commission votes 5-0 to reject Vos recall effort

The bipartisan commission found organizers fell short of the signatures they needed to force a recall

Wisconsin’s Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos talks to the media at the state Capitol, Feb. 15, 2022, in Madison, Wis. Backers of an effort to oust Vos from office over his opposition to former President Donald Trump announced Sunday, March 10, 2024 that they’ve collected enough signatures to force a recall vote. Andy Manis/AP Photo

The bipartisan Wisconsin Elections Commission voted Thursday to reject a recall petition against Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, saying organizers failed to gather enough signatures to force an election.

Commissioners voted 5-0 to reject the petitions, following the recommendation of staff who work at the state’s elections agency.

“It really boils down to an arithmetic problem,” said Commissioner Bob Spindell, a Republican appointee. “Commission staff looked at it from every single angle, and no matter which angle they looked at, the petitions were woefully short.”

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The recall effort was launched by conservative activists who were angry with Vos for his outspoken criticsm of former President Donald Trump. Activists also took issue with Vos for blocking an effort to impeach WEC administrator Meagan Wolfe.

Under Wisconsin’s recall law, organizers needed to gather a number of signatures from residents of Vos’ district equal to 25 percent of the number of people who voted in the last election for governor. That number varies from district to district.

In Vos’ old 63rd Assembly District —which was struck down by the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s liberal majority as unconstitutional along with the rest of the old legislative maps — 6,850 signatures would have been needed to force a recall. According to a review by WEC staff, organizers gathered only 4,989 signatures, falling well short of the mark.

In the new 33rd Assembly District, Vos’ new seat, organizers would have needed 7,195 signatures. Staff at the WEC said they gathered 3,053 signatures, less than half the number required.

Staff also found 5,472 signatures gathered in the new 66th Assembly District, which would have hit the 25 percent benchmark. But that district is represented by another lawmaker, Democratic Minority Leader Greta Neubauer of Racine.

“I mean, Rep. Vos doesn’t live there,” said Commission Chair Don Millis, another Republican who was appointed by Vos. “He doesn’t represent it. And Rep. Neubauer obviously was not on the petition.”

Democratic Commissioner Mark Thomsen abstained from voting on the final motion Thursday because he wanted commissioners to approve a more limited version, stating that the recall had failed in the 63rd Assembly District without mentioning the other seats.

Ahead of the vote, commissioners heard from Vos campaign attorney Matthew Fernholz, who urged the panel to order an investigation of people whose names were allegedly added to the recall petitions without their consent.

“This was serious election fraud,” Fernholz said.

Commissioners said they were not allowed to launch an independent investigation under the laws that set up the elections agency.

Commissioners also heard from former Justice Michael Gableman, an attorney for the recall effort who has been at odds with the powerful speaker for the past two years.

In 2021, Vos hired Gableman to lead an investigation of the 2020 election, a decision he has since said was the worst mistake he’s made since becoming speaker. In 2022, Gableman campaigned for Vos’ Republican primary opponent.

Gableman argued the recall effort had been intentionally sabotaged by people who wanted it to fail.

“It was infiltrated by outsiders from New York and Florida,” Gableman said. “That’s been reported to the FBI.”

Left unanswered after the vote was what district lines would guide any future recalls, including another one that’s already been launched against Vos.

The Commission voted recently to ask the Wisconsin Supreme Court to weigh in on which districts should guide future recalls, but the court declined, sending the matter back to the WEC.

Gableman argued the WEC had a duty to make that pronouncement, but commissioners said that question was not formally in front of them Thursday night.

Democratic Commissioner Ann Jacobs did question why recall organizers had not adjusted their tactics.

“I’m not sure what on earth they’re doing filing it in the exact same district again,” she said. “But you know, it’s up to them.”