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Election deniers reair false claims at public hearing over Wisconsin’s top elections official’s future

The public hearing paves way for Senate confirmation hearings for Administrator Meagan Wolfe that the attorney general say are illegal

Former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman testifies during a public hearing of the Wisconsin Senate Committee on Shared Revenue, Elections and Consumer Protection
Former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman testifies during a public hearing of the Wisconsin Senate Committee on Shared Revenue, Elections and Consumer Protection about reappointing Meagan Wolfe as administrator of the Wisconsin Elections Commission at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, Wis., on Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2023. Anya van Wagtendonk/WPR

A state Senate committee took public testimony about reappointing Meagan Wolfe as Wisconsin’s election administrator on Tuesday — a move that the Wisconsin attorney general says is illegitimate, and critics say is the first step toward illegally ousting her from her position.

Much of the hearing amounted to a reairing of conspiracy theories about the 2020 election. Some of Wisconsin’s most prominent election deniers — including Michael Gableman, who led a pricey and ultimately failed probe into the 2020 presidential race in Wisconsin — spoke out against Wolfe’s leadership of the agency.

Wolfe, however, did not appear before the Republican-led Committee on Shared Revenue, Elections and Consumer Protection’s public hearing about reappointing her to a second four-year term as administrator of the Wisconsin Elections Commission.

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The hearing is a step toward a full confirmation vote, but members of the elections commission and Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul have said that these proceedings are not allowed under state law. Following Kaul’s guidance, Wolfe said last week that she would not appear.

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

The conflict over Wolfe’s appointment dates back to late June, when the Wisconsin Elections Commission deadlocked on a vote to move forward Wolfe’s renomination. Democratic members of the commission say they have no authority to appoint — or reappoint — anyone for the role, because there is no vacancy as long as Wolfe has not stepped down.

That’s because of a Wisconsin Supreme Court decision from last summer. The court’s former conservative majority ruled in the case of former Natural Resources Board Chair Fredrick Prehn that a vacancy for an appointed position is formed only by acts like resignation or death, not by the expiration of a term.

In a surprise move days after the commission deadlock, the GOP-led state Senate nonetheless moved to consider Wolfe’s appointment, paving the way for confirmation proceedings. Wolfe likely does not have the votes to pass Senate confirmation, which would mean she would be effectively fired.

But Kaul said last week that such proceedings are illegitimate because of the decision in the Prehn case.

“To the extent that there is any unfounded doubt, I am writing to make clear that WEC has not appointed a new administrator, and there is no WEC administrator appointment before the Senate. This is not a close question under state law,” Kaul wrote in a letter addressed to Wisconsin Legislative Council Director Anne Sappenfield.

A spokesperson for the Department of Justice did not respond to a Wisconsin Public Radio request for comment.

Republicans on the Senate elections committee Tuesday said that legal guidance does not apply and that Wolfe should be subject to a standard legislative process.

“I will not abdicate my authority, or the Senate’s authority, in this process,” said Sen. Dan Knodl, R-Germantown, who chairs the committee.

Given this ongoing conflict, the matter is expected to be resolved in court.

Support for Wolfe shared at hearing, along with false claims about 2020 election

At the hearing’s start, Sen. Mark Spreitzer, D-Beloit, said the committee could not legally take up the question of the confirmation because the Wisconsin Elections Commission had not moved a nomination forward.

He referred to an August memo from Wisconsin’s Legislative Council, the nonpartisan agency that provides legal and policy analysis to state lawmakers, about the process for nominating an administrator.

“This committee cannot take up a nomination that has not been made,” he said. “This nomination is not properly before us.”

In response, Knodl said he had received the same memo but that the Senate has a duty to follow a confirmation process.

“I am in possession of the opinions, and they’re just that — they’re opinions. This is not a court of law. Here is a public hearing,” Knodl said.

The significance of what might otherwise be a routine legislative event was evident by the size of the crowd, which filled a hearing room and spilled over into an overflow room.

As the hearing proceeded, several local clerks testified about the importance of ongoing and clear leadership, with less than six months before the first election of Wisconsin’s 2024 cycle.

Lisa Tollefson, the clerk for Rock County, praised Wolfe’s record.

“Meagan Wolfe provides strength, guidance and support through our elections across the state,” she said. “During the COVID-19 election, there were so many things happening that wouldn’t have happened without her strength and guidance.”

Many of Tuesday’s public speakers expressed concerns about the integrity and security of Wisconsin elections and called for Wolfe’s removal.

Some repeated debunked conspiracy theories about the administration of the 2020 presidential election in Wisconsin, suggesting that — who does not make policy, but implements policy determinations from the bipartisan elections committee — participated in stealing that election from Trump.

Numerous reviews of the election, including a nonpartisan audit, found no evidence of widespread fraud, and Biden’s victory over Trump has been upheld by multiple state and federal courts.

Former state Supreme Court justice Michael Gableman, who was hired by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, to investigate that election, was among those who spoke. His probe ultimately turned up no evidence of wrongdoing, racked up a multi-million dollar pricetag, and was subject to lawsuits for allegedly violating records laws.

Gableman, who has become something of a figurehead for Wisconsinites who subscribe to conspiracy theories about that election, questioned why Wolfe did not appear on Tuesday.

“The record speaks for itself and nothing speaks as highly as the fact that (Wolfe) didn’t come here today to tell you about all the good work she’s been doing,” he said.

Michael Gableman stands at a podium and points around the room as he speaks. Attendees are seated behind him.
Former state Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman speaks Tuesday, March 1, 2022, at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Wolfe told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel last week that she would not appear after Kaul’s letter. She submitted a letter to the committee on Monday with updates about recent policy implementations that was related to a separate agenda item.

A spokesperson for the Wisconsin Elections Commission did not respond to WPR’s request for comment.

Other prominent Wisconsin election deniers also spoke Tuesday. These included Rep. Janel Brandtjen, R-Menomonee Falls, who previously called for the 2020 election to be decertified, and Harry Wait, who has been charged with misdemeanor voter fraud for requesting absentee ballots in other people’s names. Wait has described that as activism to expose flaws in the voting system.

Court challenges likely

Wolfe’s future in the position is likely to face a lengthy legal battle.

Sen.Spreitzer asked Tollefson, the Rock County clerk, what it would mean for her election administration work to not know who holds the chief elections position.

“To keep us consistent throughout the state, we need one source that gets everything to us in the same format,” she said. “Most clerks are not lawyers. So they’re not used to distinguishing state statutes. So they need that guidance to make sure we’re all on the same page, to make sure we’re getting the training we need to run those elections.”

Sen. Romaine Quinn, R-Cameron, decried the likelihood of a court challenge.

“It’s just unfortunate that we are going to wind up back in court for trying to exercise our own authority,” he said.