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Newly appointed Wisconsin Secretary of State says she wants to modernize the diminished office

On WPR's 'The Morning Show,' Sarah Godlewski said 'there is a role' for her office in helping the Wisconsin Elections Commission

Sarah Godlewski smiles as she speaks to young children sitting in desks.
State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski visits children at Campion Learning Center during her run for U.S. Senate on Friday, July 22, 2022, in Milwaukee, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

A month into her appointment as Wisconsin’s Secretary of State, Sarah Godlewski said she is hoping to modernize the office, which has seen decades of cutbacks and diminished responsibilities.

The office may also look to support the state’s election administration body, Godlewski said in an appearance on Wisconsin Public Radio’s “The Morning Show” Monday.

The bipartisan Wisconsin Elections Commission has “been doing important election work freely, fairly and securely for a long time,” Godlewski said. “And so, in my mind, I don’t think that we need to change that. But I do think that there is a role that the secretary of state can play with strengthening our democracy.”

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In the last election, Republicans pushed to move some elements of election administration away from the bipartisan Wisconsin Elections Commission and into the office of secretary of state. Democrats criticized that move, saying it could give one person too much control over elections.

Godlewski was appointed to replace Doug La Follette, who held the office for more than four decades. La Follette retired suddenly on March 17 after winning reelection just months earlier. The 82-year-old cited insufficient support and resources for the office in his resignation letter to Gov. Tony Evers.

Godlewski inherited the small office, with a staff of one and few official functions. She told “The Morning Show” that she will work to “make sure that we have a budget that is properly resourced for all the work that the secretary of state does.”

“It’s an office that pays for itself because of the services that they are able to provide businesses and citizens here in Wisconsin,” Godlewski said.

Among the office’s main functions is authenticating documents that Wisconsin businesses or individuals may need to work, travel, or affirm family structures overseas. Godlewski said she’d like to modernize this aspect of the work, allowing people to certify documents online without driving to Madison.

The office also sits on the Board of Com​missioners of Public Lands, the state’s oldest agency, which manages state land that sits in trust for public schools and libraries. Godlewski said she wants to see that agency increase its distributions.

In dozens of states, secretaries of state administer elections, but that hasn’t been the case in Wisconsin since 1974. Godlewski said her office could support municipal clerks in offering more transparency to voters or in establishing “public-private partnerships” to make voting easier in Wisconsin.

“How can we start working with clerks and building, for example, our transparency, whether it’s maybe livestreaming a canvas that’s happening or publishing ballots?” she said.

Sarah Godlewski wears a pink shirt that says
Wisconsin State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski speaks to attendees during a protest in opposition to the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe vs. Wade on Friday, June 24, 2022, in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Godlewski is the former state treasurer. She was elected to that seat in 2018 after a failed bid by Republicans in the state Legislature to eliminate the office. She did not seek a second term after deciding to run for U.S. Senate last year, dropping out of that race shortly before the August primary.

On “The Morning Show,” Godlewski said her experience as treasurer taught her how to be “scrappy” and “creative” in a small office with limited resources. Like the secretary of state, the treasurer’s office has a single full-time employee.

Godlewski spent much of early 2023 overseeing a political action committee to support women running for office. The group devoted significant energies to the election of Janet Protasiewicz to the state Supreme Court. Godlewski said Monday that she hoped the court, with its newly constituted liberal majority, would reexamine the state’s abortion ban and legislative maps.

Republicans have criticized her appointment, saying it was politically motivated. Amy Loudenbeck, the Republican candidate for secretary of state who narrowly lost to La Follette in November, said in a statement shortly after Godlewski’s appointment that voters should be “outraged.”

“By law, a Governor can fill a cabinet position that becomes vacant but this move coming so soon after the election raises questions once again about the tactics used by those in power who will do anything to keep that power,” Loudenbeck wrote at the time.

GOP lawmakers called for a special election to fill the seat, but Wisconsin state law allows a governor to fill the vacancy.

“When I talk to Wisconsinites, there’s one thing that’s really clear is that they’re just sick of the conspiracy theories,” Godlewski said Monday.