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In surprise move, state Senate moves to vote on top elections official after Elections Commission deadlock

Elections administrator Meagan Wolfe was unanimously confirmed in 2019

Wisconsin Elections Commission Interim Administrator Meagan Wolfe
Wisconsin Elections Commission Administrator Meagan Wolfe. Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Elections Commission

Republican state senators used a surprise procedural maneuver Wednesday night that could lay the groundwork for an up-or-down vote on whether to fire Wisconsin’s top election official ahead of the next presidential election.

The unexpected vote came after senators spent the better part of the day debating and passing Wisconsin’s next state budget, and a day after the Wisconsin Elections Commission deadlocked on whether to formally nominate WEC Administrator Meagan Wolfe to a second four-year term.

While the dispute is thick with procedural questions that are likely to be decided by a court, the practical ramifications of the surprise move are relatively straightforward. Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, has raised doubts over whether Wolfe has the votes she would need to be confirmed by his chamber. If it comes to a Senate vote, Wolfe could be out of a job.

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“Miss Wolfe’s term ends on July 1,” LeMahieu told his Senate colleagues Wednesday. “Despite WEC’s antics, the state Senate is committed to restoring the law.”

The move caught Democrats, including Minority Leader Melissa Agard of Madison, off guard.

“In my opinion, this is the worst of politics,” Agard told reporters after Wednesday’s session. “This was a real curveball.”

Wolfe was unanimously confirmed by the Senate in 2019 to a four-year term that runs through June 30, 2023. Two major events happened since then that changed the equation of her reappointment dramatically.

The first happened in 2020, when former President Donald Trump’s false claims that he won the election and his attempt to overturn the election results in Wisconsin led many Republicans to attack Wolfe’s handling of the agency.

The second happened last year, when the conservative majority on the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that an appointee of former Republican Gov. Scott Walker could remain in his job indefinitely. Democratic members of the WEC argued that decision meant Wolfe could stay in her job, too. In the 2022 case, Wausau dentist Fred Prehn refused to step down from the state’s Natural Resources Board when his term expired. Prehn argued successfully in court that the fact that he had not stepped down meant there was no vacancy for Democratic Gov. Tony Evers to fill.

Democrats on the Elections Commission used the same logic to argue that as long as Wolfe doesn’t leave her job, there’s no vacancy in the role.

“Let’s make this clear — the Senate can’t vote on a nomination the WEC never made!!!,” said Democratic Commissioner Ann Jacobs in a tweet after the Senate’s action. “No nomination = no nominee = nothing to confirm = nothing to vote on.”

Jacobs and the other Democratic members of the WEC abstained from voting on Wolfe’s appointment Tuesday, arguing they lacked the legal authority. That left her nomination shy of the two-thirds threshold typically required to take action on anything on the bipartisan Commission.

But Republicans on the WEC took a different approach, voting to forward Wolfe’s nomination to the Senate, where LeMahieu said lawmakers would now consider it.

“Miss Wolfe’s reappointment will move through the normal process in the state Senate,” LeMahieu said, adding that Wolfe would be given a confirmation hearing where the public could weigh in.

It’s unclear when that might happen. The full Senate is not scheduled to be in session until September, when the next presidential election cycle will be well underway.

Editor’s note: The story was updated to reflect that the Meagan Wolfe’s term was initially scheduled to run through June 30, 2023.

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