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‘Absolutely preposterous’: Wisconsin elections commission pushes back on nonpartisan audit

Commissioners argue Legislative Audit Bureau report contains several inaccuracies

A blue yard sign says "VOTE" near a line of early voters
Voters at UW-Madison wait in line to vote early Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020. Angela Major/WPR

Members of Wisconsin’s bipartisan state elections agency sharply criticized a nonpartisan audit of the 2020 election on Wednesday, arguing the report contains several errors.

The Republican-ordered audit was released in late October. It found no widespread voter fraud or wrongdoing in the election, but made dozens of recommendations for updating state policies and state laws related to elections. It also alleged the Wisconsin Elections Commission issued several pieces of guidance to local election officials during the COVID-19 pandemic that conflicted with state law. The commission has faced sharp criticism from GOP lawmakers in recent weeks as a result of the audit, including calls for its administrator to resign.

On Wednesday, during the elections commission’s first public meeting since the release of the audit, commissioners argued the report included several inaccuracies that painted the commission in a poor light and misled the public about how elections are run in the state.

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“Those are either complete gross incompetence or an attempt to intentionally sabotage the work of the commission,” commissioner Ann Jacobs said of some of the audit’s assertions.

Jacobs, the elections commission’s current chair, was appointed to the agency by former Democratic Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling.

Commissioner Dean Knudson, who was appointed by Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, echoed Jacobs’ sentiments, accusing the audit bureau of “sloppy work,” “inaccuracy” and “unprofessionalism.”

Knudson compared the report to a “soccer fan coming from France” to go to a Green Bay Packers game, “and by half-time, they decided they knew better than Aaron Rodgers did about how to drop back and throw a pass.”

“Unfortunately, the public was given just a really wrong, erroneous impression about what’s been going on,” he said.

Knudson said the audit bureau should put out a public statement acknowledging its errors, otherwise there will be a “black mark” on the bureau’s record and reputation.

Commissioners said the errors included a misunderstanding of how the state uses records from the Electronic Registration Information Center, a national nonprofit group that helps states keep voter rolls up-to-date.

“They should have come to us and gotten the facts straight before they reported it,” said Democratic-appointed commissioner Mark Thomsen.

Another error, commissioners said, was the audit’s implication that the commission condoned local election officials adjourning ballot counting early on election night. Commissioners argued the audit bureau misinterpreted guidance it issued on the subject in October 2020.

“It’s absolutely preposterous,” Jacobs said. “This was an attempt to find something that didn’t exist and blow it up.”

The commission also approved a motion to say that pandemic-related guidance issued in March 2020 related to moving polling places is now moot. The audit said the guidance conflicted with state law, because no such allowance is in statute.

Commissioners argued the Legislative Audit Bureau should have given the commission an opportunity to read the audit before it was released to the public. They said that would have afforded the agency the opportunity to provide additional details, clarifications and prevent errors in the report.

Allowing an agency that is being audited the opportunity to review a draft of an audit is common practice for the Legislative Audit Bureau, but the bureau said in its report that it did not do so in this case because it had concerns about the elections commission being able to preserve the audit’s confidentiality before a public release.

“Although we typically allow an audited entity the opportunity to review our draft audit report and respond in writing to it, we did not do so for this report,” auditors wrote. “Statutes allow governmental bodies such as (the elections commission) to convene in closed session only for specified purposes, none of which pertains to reviewing draft audit reports. Thus, to preserve the statutorily required confidentiality of our audit until its completion, we did not provide (the elections commission) with an opportunity to review a confidential draft audit report and respond in writing to this report prior to its release.”

The report included 30 recommendations for elections commission policy changes. Despite the pushback on several elements, the commission approved moving forward with many of the recommended policy updates on Wednesday. Those included updating how the commission notifies municipalities if their local clerks haven’t reported completing state-mandated training sessions.

The audit bureau’s report on election administration came after Wisconsin has completed a series of routine state election audits and a presidential recount in the state’s two largest counties. None of those reviews have uncovered widespread fraud or wrongdoing. There have also been numerous Republican-backed lawsuits in the state, all of which have failed to result in findings of wrongdoing by election officials or voters.

Biden won Wisconsin by about 21,000 votes — a margin similar to several other razor-thin statewide elections in recent years.