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In court filing, GOP legislators admit they can’t fire top elections official

The filing from top Republican leaders says September vote to fire Megan Wolfe was 'symbolic'

Wisconsin Elections Commission Administrator Meagan Wolfe, left, is seen during a September 2018 meeting of the Elections Commission
Wisconsin Elections Commission Administrator Meagan Wolfe, left, is seen during a September 2018 meeting of the Elections Commission with then-Commissioner Dean Knudson. Emily Hamer/Wisconsin Watch

Attorneys for the Legislature’s top Republicans told a judge Friday that a September vote to fire Wisconsin Elections Commission Administrator Megan Wolfe was “symbolic,” and that Wolfe is “lawfully holding over” in that position despite her appointment expiring July 1.

The filing by lawyers representing Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, Senate President Chris Kapenga, R-Delafield, and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, contradicts what some of those lawmakers said publicly in recent months about their efforts to remove Wolfe from office.

In September, the Wisconsin Senate voted to fire Wolfe after the bipartisan Wisconsin Elections Commission in June split 3-3 on whether to reappoint her. Without an appointment by the Commission, Democratic members claimed, the GOP-controlled Senate didn’t have the ability to remove her from the position.

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At the time, LeMahieu argued that because the three Republican commission members voted to confirm Wolfe’s reappointment and the three Democratic commission members abstained “it was a unanimous vote.”

Now, in the court filing, LeMahieu and his fellow GOP lawmakers’ court filing says last month’s vote to remove Wolfe was about messaging.

“Defendants deny that on September 14, 2023, the Senate voted to deem Administrator Wolfe nominated based on the Senate’s June resolution,” the filing says. “Defendants’ vote on September 14, 2023, was symbolic and meant to signal disapproval of Administrator Wolfe’s performance.”

The lawmakers also admit Wolfe is “lawfully holding over as the administrator” of the WEC and that the Joint Committee on Legislative Organization, which is co-chaired by Vos, “has no power to appoint an interim administrator” while Wolfe chooses to stay in her seat.

In an interview Monday, Democratic Wisconsin Elections Commission member Ann Jacobs told Wisconsin Public Radio she’s gratified the GOP lawmakers are “essentially admitting that the position taken by the Democratic appointees” was accurate.

“And when push came to shove, they (Republican lawmakers) had to admit it in court,” Jacobs said.

LeMahieu, Kapenga and Vos did not immediately respond to WPR’s request for comment on the filing.

The question of whether appointed members of state agencies can stay in their positions after their appointments expire came to a head in June 2022, when the conservative majority of the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled past precedent allowed former Natural Resources Board chair Fred Prehn to continue serving more than a year after his term ended.

On Oct. 5, Kapenga asked Vos to begin impeachment proceedings against Wolfe, claiming her refusal to vacate her seat is a violation of state law and could “rise to the level of corrupt conduct in office,” which is one of the constitutional requirements for impeachment. Vos said he will not initiate impeachment while the lawsuit is pending.

Wolfe has been the target of debunked claims from Republicans who deny President Joe Biden defeated former President Donald Trump in the 2020 election.

The Republican leaders are asking a Dane County judge to order WEC to appoint a new administrator no later than Nov. 1.

The latest court filing by GOP leaders came to light as part of a lawsuit filed by Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul last month seeking to block the Senate’s action.