, ,

Normally quiet secretary of state race erupts with questions of elections, power and democracy

Longtime holder of the position, Doug La Follette, is running against state Rep. Amy Loudenbeck

secretary of state
Incumbent Doug La Follette and Rep. Amy Loudenbeck face off in the Nov. 8 election for Secretary of State. Photos courtesy of La Follette’s and Loudenbeck’s campaigns 

Wisconsin’s secretary of state lacks much authority. But this year, the office is being thrust into the spotlight over expanding its power to include managing elections.

On Nov. 8, voters will choose whether to elect incumbent Secretary of State Doug La Follette or challenger state Rep. Amy Loudenbeck, R-Clinton. Both recently appeared on Wisconsin Public Radio’s “The Morning Show” to discuss their campaigns and the prospect of becoming involved in elections administration.

Wisconsin elections are currently overseen by the Wisconsin Elections Commission, which is run by a group of bipartisan appointees. The secretary of state’s office has one full-time employee. Many of the office’s past duties have shifted to other agencies.

Stay informed on the latest news

Sign up for WPR’s email newsletter.

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

La Follette, a Democrat, said Republicans across the country — from Georgia to Arizona to Michigan — want the power to overturn elections they lost. He said Wisconsin should keep its secretary of state out of administering elections.

“We’ve had independent election boards and commissions, and we should be proud of that,” he said. “They now for the first time are talking about bringing elections to the secretary of state. Why? Because they would like to be able to possibly change the results of an election. We don’t want that in Wisconsin. I’m against that.”

In other states, secretaries of state are feeling pressure from Republicans and former President Donald Trump over debunked claims about voter fraud from the 2020 election.

A man wears a hat with a U.S. flag pattern and writes with a pen with a flag attached as he votes at a booth with a flag decoration.
Kevin Griffith fills out a ballot Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2022, at the Village of Waukesha Municipal Complex. Angela Major/WPR

La Follette has been Wisconsin’s secretary of state for 44 years. He said the office has less authority today on issues like business corporations and trademarks because Republicans in the state Legislature eroded its power over time.

READ MORE: Politics coverage from Wisconsin Public Radio

Discussing her campaign, Loudenbeck emphasized that other secretaries of state across the country have some role in elections. She said it’s appropriate, if the state Legislature chooses a new way of running elections, that an office “directly accountable to the voters” be part of that process.

The Republican from Clinton said it was premature to talk about giving the secretary of state’s office unilateral control of elections. She called that step “unlikely.”

“There are numerous duties that this office could perform to compliment the work of others to help oversee and administer elections,” Loudenbeck said. “If we want to have some checks and balances and a hybrid model in Wisconsin, we can look at using this office to be a part of that.”

La Follette said Loudenbeck doesn’t recognize that President Joe Biden won the 2020 election. However, Loudenbeck affirmed Biden’s victory.

“The ballots were cast. A recount was conducted. The totals favored President Biden. Our Electoral College votes were cast for him,” she said. “He is the president, and there is no going back.”

READ MORE: Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos says 2020 election may have been ‘tainted,’ but Biden won

Alix Yarrow, left, registers to vote at the polling place
Wisconsin voters on the list for possible deactivation because they have moved can change their addresses at the polls on Election Day. Here, Alix Yarrow, left, registers to vote at the polling place at Olbrich Botanical Gardens in Madison, Wis., on Feb. 18, 2020. Yarrow had recently changed addresses within the city. Assisting in the registration process are Kyle Richmond, center, and Aaron Schultz, right. Coburn Dukehart/Wisconsin Watch

She went on to say, however, that people have questions about ballots being cast under Wisconsin Elections Commission guidance that clashed with the interpretation from the Legislative Audit Bureau. She said there are “loopholes in our laws that need to be fixed.”

READ MORE: League of Women Voters suing to prevent absentee ballots with incomplete witness addresses from being rejected

Loudenbeck said she decided to run before the 2020 election but waited to formally announce until after the election. She served in the state Assembly for 12 years and has recently been a member of the influential state budget committee.

“We are not meant to be in these jobs forever,” she said.

Loudenbeck said her opponent is using hyperbole to get people riled up and distract voters from his “failed record of neglect.”

La Follette said he originally planned to retire but was persuaded to run again because he was worried about election integrity.

“We need to keep Wisconsin elections free of politics,” he said. “It’s that simple.”