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Wisconsin Senate moves to fire elections administrator Meagan Wolfe, setting stage for legal battle

Gov. Tony Evers blasted the move, and the Wisconsin Department of Justice has filed suit

By
Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, addresses the Wisconsin State Senate during a legislative session on September 14, 2023, in Madison, Wis. Anya
Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, addresses the Wisconsin State Senate during a legislative session on September 14, 2023, in Madison, Wis. Anya van Wagtendonk/WPR

The Wisconsin Senate voted Thursday to fire Meagan Wolfe, the Wisconsin Elections Commission administrator, immediately setting off a legal challenge from the Democratic attorney general.

The decision Thursday will test the application of a recent state court decision suggesting appointed officials can stay in office after the expiration of their terms if they do not step down. Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul has said that applies to Wolfe, so Senate confirmation proceedings — up to and including Thursday’s vote — are illegal.

Immediately following the Thursday vote, Kaul announced that the state Department of Justice had filed a lawsuit aimed at rejecting the Senate’s actions.

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“We are going to court to minimize the confusion resulting from today’s stunt and to protect a pillar of our democracy — the fair administration of elections,” he said in a statement.

Wolfe told reporters hours after the vote that she will continue to serve as elections administrator as the legal matter is resolved.

“Unless a final determination of a court says otherwise, I will continue to serve as the administrator of the (Wisconsin Elections Commission),” she said.

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

Republicans have said they were upholding a process laid out in the state Constitution that compels them to replace appointed officers at the end of their terms.

Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, said that replacing Wolfe would help restore faith in Wisconsin elections.

“If a key component of fair and honest elections is that the electorate have confidence in our elections, and if they don’t have confidence in our elections, we’re disenfranchising voters,” he said. “They’re not going to go out and vote if they don’t feel that their vote is not going to be stolen, or that there’s fraud going on.”

Gov. Tony Evers immediately blasted the day’s proceedings in a statement, saying Legislative Republicans are attempting to “sow distrust and disinformation about our elections, denigrate our clerks, poll workers, and election administrators, and undermine basic tenets of our democracy, including the peaceful transfer of power.”

He added he was calling on the Wisconsin Department of Justice to provide legal representation for expected legal proceedings challenging the vote.

Elections commissioners, Democratic lawmakers and Kaul have all cited a case decided last summer by the former conservative majority in the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which found that Fred Prehn, an official appointed to the Department of Natural Resources by former Gov. Scott Walker, could remain in his post after the expiration of his term.

LeMahieu previously told local Republican leaders the Prehn decision meant ousting Wolfe was unlikely, according to emails obtained by the Wisconsin State Journal.

The Prehn ruling suggests the expiration of a term does not create a vacancy to be filled. Only a departure from office — for example, by resignation or death — creates a vacancy, the court found.

Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul
Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul announces that the state Department of Justice has filed suit challenging a vote in the state Senate against confirming Meagan Wolfe as administrator of the Wisconsin Elections Commission at a press conference in Madison, Wis., on Sept. 14, 2023. Anya van Wagtendonk/WPR

In an August letter to the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Council, Kaul said that this applies to Wolfe, and that any subsequent confirmation action by the state Senate was therefore illegal.

Wolfe has been a focus of conservatives’ ire as the Elections Commission faced a series of legal challenges over the administration of voting practices in the state, and with unfounded allegations of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election. Many of those opinions were expressed at a public hearing over her nomination earlier this month.

Some of Wisconsin’s most prominent election deniers spoke out against Wolfe’s leadership of the agency at that hearing, and some of those people applauded from the gallery Thursday as the vote against Wolfe was read out.

After the vote, LeMahieu made a motion for the Wisconsin Elections Commission to appoint an interim administrator and submit a nomination for a full replacement.

“WEC (the Wisconsin Elections Commission) has a statutory duty to appoint an interim-administrator. If the commission chooses to not follow the law, the Senate will explore all available options to restore Wisconsinites’ faith in elections,” he said later in a statement.

Attorney General Josh Kaul announces lawsuit

Moments after the Senate vote, Kaul announced the Department of Justice had filed suit in Dane County Circuit Court against LeMahieu, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and Senate President Chris Kapenga, R-Delafield, calling for Wolfe to stay in her position as a holdover appointee.

The lawsuit argues that the Senate’s actions on Thursday are unlawful and that Wolfe should remain in place until and unless a majority of elections commissioners vote to remove her.

“This is not a close question,” Kaul said at a press conference. “Under Wisconsin law, while the Senate has purported to take a vote on the appointment of Meagan Wolfe, there is in fact no appointment.”

The argument points to the complex procedural battle that Wolfe has faced since her first term in the administrator role expired this summer. At the time, election commissioners gridlocked over whether to nominate her for a second term.

State law says that four commissioners must vote to move forward the nomination. In failing to move forward a formal nomination, Democrats on the commission hoped to keep Wolfe away from the very Senate confirmation hearing held on Thursday.

At the press conference announcing his lawsuit, Kaul said that the Senate had acted unlawfully when it held the hearing.

“The Senate action today, where they claim to have voted on an appointment that was not before them, has no legal effect whatsoever,” he said. “The court, I’m very confident, will confirm that.”

It is unclear when the lawsuit will be resolved. In the meantime, Kaul said he expects Wolfe will continue to report to work.

Wolfe affirmed as much when she spoke to reporters later on Thursday.

“The 2024 election cycle begins in less than three months. There is such important work ahead, and my hope is that we will quickly get the clarity that we need from the courts,” she said. “I will accept the court’s final determination and it will allow election officials across the state to return focus to delivering fair and accurate elections to the state of Wisconsin.”

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