Racine County District Attorney won’t charge nursing home workers, Wisconsin Elections Commission members

In a letter, DA Patricia Hanson endorsed substance of sheriff's charges against the Commission

poll workers sort out early and absentee ballots at the Kenosha Municipal building on Election Day in Kenosha
In this Nov. 3, 2020 file photo, poll workers sort out early and absentee ballots at the Kenosha Municipal building on Election Day in Kenosha, Wis. Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul asked a court to block subpoenas issued by an attorney hired by Republicans to lead an investigation into the 2020 presidential election that was won by President Joe Biden. Wong Maye/AP Photo

The Racine County District Attorney said she is “disappointed that (her) hands are tied” in announcing that she will not charge members of the Wisconsin Elections Commission with election fraud.

In a letter to Racine County Sheriff Christopher Schmaling made public Friday, DA Patricia Hanson said her office lacks jurisdiction to bring the charges Schmaling recommended in October. She endorsed the substance of Schmaling’s charges, which claimed the commission was wrong to keep special voting deputies out of nursing homes in 2020 as a pandemic safety measure, and said her decision not to prosecute was the result of her finding that she lacked jurisdiction in the case.

“It is appalling to me that an appointed, unelected group of volunteers has enough authority to change how some of our most vulnerable citizens access voting,” wrote Hanson, who like Schmaling is a Republican.

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Special voting deputies are only dispatched to care facilities if those facilities have a certain number of people already registered for absentee ballots. Nursing home staff frequently help residents fill out the applications for absentee ballots, and if residents need assistance in filling out their ballot in facilities that don’t meet the threshold for a special voting deputy to visit, staff may help them do so.

The sheriff’s recommendation of charges in October was met immediately with “strenuous disagreement” from the commission, which said in a statement that it had acted “in a thoughtful, public, and hours-long discussion at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic” with a bipartisan vote that ensured those in nursing homes were able to vote by mail.

Hanson also declined to prosecute health care professionals in a local nursing home who helped residents to vote by mail, writing that “it would be unfair for me to expect that these health care professionals would better understand the election laws in Wisconsin than the Wisconsin Elections Commission.”

In a statement, Democratic Elections Commission appointee Ann Jacobs called Hanson’s letter “nothing more than a partisan effort to dispute an election that was fair, safe and accurate.”

Schmaling had claimed that staff in the nursing homes had manipulated the votes of residents, a claim disability rights groups and others said mischaracterized the law and failed to account for the residents’ right to vote. A 2020 memo from the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services said Medicare-certified facilities are required to assist residents in exercising their right to vote.

More than 15 months after the November 2020 election, the Racine County case marks the latest in ongoing efforts to examine how that election was conducted and in some cases to raise doubts about or seek to overturn the results. On Thursday Rep. Timothy Ramthun, R-Campbellsport, filed paperwork to run for governor. Ramthun has received praise from former President Donald Trump for calling for 2020 results to be decertified. Like Trump, he’s also repeatedly made false claims and spread wild conspiracy theories about the election’s legitimate result.

Also on Thursday, Fond du Lac County District Attorney Eric Toney announced voter fraud charges against five people there who he said illegally used a post office box to register to vote in 2020. And for months, a team led by former state Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman and backed by Wisconsin’s Republican Legislature has been conducting its own investigation into the 2020 election.

Democrat Joe Biden defeated Republican Trump by 20,682 votes in Wisconsin in 2020. A 2021 report approved by the elections commission found local clerks in Wisconsin forwarded 13 instances of suspected voter fraud in the November 2020 election to district attorneys. In December, a review by the Associated Press of every potential voter fraud case in six battleground states found fewer than 475 potential cases across all six states, including 31 in Wisconsin.