ProPublica originally published this story. ProPublica, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newspaper, published this story. Subscribe to The Big Story newsletter and receive stories such as this in your inbox
Since 2020, Wisconsin has witnessed a lot of attempts to influence the presidential election results.
A group of fake electors attempted to take over the state’s electoral votes in favor of Donald Trump. The top Wisconsin lawmaker started a year-long investigation, led by a lawyer who spewed election fraud theories. Its courts heard many lawsuits challenging the integrity and legitimacy of the 2020 election, as well as the people who administered it.
All of these efforts were unsuccessful, sometimes quite spectacularly. The election deniers won on a fundamental level. They have made a significant change in the way Election Day in Wisconsin will look in 2022, for critical midterm elections.
The conservative majority of the Wisconsin Supreme Court prohibited most drop boxes for voting. These were an alternative to relying on the mail and provided an easy way to vote during the pandemic. The ruling meant that persons with disabilities couldn’t have assistance delivering their ballots at their local clerks, until a federal judge intervened.
In Waukesha County, an older judge sided with Republican Party in a ruling which prohibited local clerks from correcting minor errors or omissions on absentee ballot envelopes. Clerks could contact voters or return the corrected ballot. This was yet another example of an effort to increase voter access in a state that is already well-known for its restrictions.
The Wisconsin Assembly and Senate, both controlled by Republicans, passed a number of bills to tighten voting laws. Each bill was vetoed and withdrawn by the governor. Tony Evers, a Democrat. Evers is running against Republican Tim Michels in a tight race for reelection. Michels has stated that he will “fix the election mess” by calling a special session to the Legislature “on day one”.
Philip Rocco is an associate professor of political science at Marquette University, Milwaukee. He describes a dynamic he’s seen in the United States playing out in Wisconsin. He said that an onslaught against the voting process creates “an atmosphere of procedural chaos” leading up to Election Day.
“It’s created a dangerous atmosphere for elections to take place in,”
Republicans often see a lower turnout as a benefit and frame the fights around legal issues. Democrats, however, argue that the fight is about voting rights. Both sides see no benefit in surrendering.
Many voters are worried about their next vote and uncertain if they will be counted. There is an almost daily update of legislative committee hearings, legal machinations, proposed laws, or official investigations into Wisconsin’s election system.
Wisconsin, a swing state with 10 electoral vote and a history that has seen razor-thin margins in elections, will again be a major prize in the 2024 presidential election. The Republican National Committee made it clear how crucial the state was in August when it announced that its 2024 convention would be held in Milwaukee, a largely overlooked Democratic-led city. The convention will reach the state’s largest media market and reach the conservative-leaning suburbs as well as the quieter towns and farms further afield.
First, November’s midterm elections are underway. This election will provide a chance for Republicans to consolidate their power and help shape the future elections. Both sides of the political spectrum are acutely aware of what is at stake.
Jeffrey Mandell, a Wisconsin attorney who is president of a progressive law firm that protects voting rights, stated that “What will happen in 2024 will largely be determined by the events of this November.”
Endless legal battles
In September, nine attorneys, dressed in dark suits and carrying briefcases, entered a Waukesha County courtroom. The extreme minutiae in Wisconsin election law were being litigated once again.
They now have to decide how to handle absentee ballot envelopes that only contain partial addresses of witnesses.
Municipal clerks were able to fill out the information until then. The Republican Party of Waukesha County now claims that this is illegal and wants to ban clerks from doing it. Some voters might be able to get their ballots back and figure out how to fix them so they can vote.
A Republican-controlled legislator supported a prohibition. It was opposed by lawyers for government regulators, Democrats, and the League of Women Voters. The GOP won the day.
Circuit Judge Michael J. Aprahamian addressed the doubts regarding absentee voting in Wisconsin, and the oversight provided by Wisconsin Elections Commission. He said that it was no surprise that supporters from all political stripes are critical, cynical, and suspicious of how elections management and oversight are done.
These court scenes are typical of what happens in Wisconsin. A healthy portion of the litigation can be traced back to Erick Kaardal. He is a Minnesota lawyer who serves as special counsel to the antiabortion Thomas More Society.
Kaardal said that despite some setbacks in Wisconsin he will continue to examine the finer points of Wisconsin’s election law. This subject takes up at most 122 pages in Wisconsin state statute.
He is currently pursuing three main goals: the Wisconsin Elections Commission which interprets laws and provides guidance to municipal clerks in the state; The Electronic Registration Information Center, a consortium for voter roll management; and The Center for Election Innovation & Research. This nonprofit seeks to increase turnout.
Kaardal stated that “we’ll be litigating alongside the WEC, ERIC and CEIR over many years,”
Kaardal’s perseverance is not appreciated by all. Kaardal was reprimanded by a federal judge for his “political grandstanding” in filing bad-faith lawsuits against Mike Pence, the then-Vice President, in December 2020 to stop the counting of electoral ballots. Madison’s judge said in May that Kaardal was absurd for referring to pandemic-related grants to elections offices as bribes.
Kaardal used his legal experience and investigative skills to defend his actions. Kaardal stated that he only wants to hold the government accountable and ensure fair elections.
Kaardal is passionate about documenting election fraud in nursing homes. Kaardal claims that during the pandemic, an unknown number cognitively impaired persons ruled incompetent for voting under court-ordered guardianships voted. This could have been with illegal assistance. Kaardal believes that the voter rolls do not accurately reflect court orders.
Kaardal filed lawsuits against 13 Wisconsin probate administrators to demand the release confidential documents that reveal the names of guardianship recipients who had their vote taken by the court. Kaardal’s petition was denied in one instance, but others are ongoing. He points out that even a person in guardianship cannot vote. Sometimes, this right may be removed due to extreme cognitive impairments.
Talk radio says that everyone under guardianship shouldn’t be allowed to vote. He said that this is simply false.
As they are under increasing pressure to handle absentee votes, election clerks also cite disinformation.
Celestine Jeffreys was the Green Bay clerk who had to defend herself when Kaardal, a local resident, filed a formal complaint at the Wisconsin Elections Commission accusing her, among other things, of “ballot harvesting” during the spring 2022 municipal elections. She claimed that she accepted multiple absentee votes from one voter. The complaint is still pending.
Matt Roeser, a resident who filed the complaint said that the heavy reliance upon absentee voting during pandemics “opened up an avenue we’ve never seen before.” It raised a lot of suspicion.
Jeffreys stated in court that she was allowed to accept multiple ballots, even if one involved a person delivering their ballot or a ballot for a person with a disability.
According to her legal brief, the complaint was “another attempt by Attorney Kaardal at court scandal where none exists — intentionally undermining the public trust in legitimately-run election processes.”
In July, Harry Wait, a Wisconsin resident, made national headlines when he declared that he had arranged for absentee votes in his names and those of the Racine mayor and state Assembly speaker to be sent to him.
Wait stated that the site only requires voters to enter their names and dates of birth. Wait also claimed that it lacks sufficient safeguards to prevent fraud.
The Wisconsin Elections Commission was furious at the antics and deemed it a serious breach of state election law. Wait was charged with misappropriation and election fraud.
Wait, despite the charges, was treated like a hero at a meeting the right-leaning group that he leads in a Racine dive bar a week later.
Wait formed H.O.T. H.O.T. stands for Honest, Open, Transparent, and was established four years ago in response to perceived government misconduct at Racine. It is now focusing on eliminating what it considers widespread election fraud in Wisconsin, and taking a special interest absentee ballots. It was even considered that it might try to take over abandoned drop boxes in southeast Wisconsin, to make sure they wouldn’t be used following the ruling by the state Supreme Court.
Wait made it clear that he doesn’t like the Wisconsin Elections Commission. He told the crowd that he was going to declare today that the Wisconsin Elections Commission is his enemy.
He was proud of how he exposed flaws in the MyVote state government website. It was set up to assist Wisconsinites locate their polling places, register to vote, or request an absentee ballot. He said that the website “really should be shut down”.
Wait stated in an interview that he will defend his action before the court on the ground that MyVote is not a legal channel for ordering a ballot. It’s a rogue program.”
Meagan Wolfe (administrator of the Wisconsin Elections Commission) has defended the online system. She stated that the online system requires a person to give the same or more information as if they had requested the ballot via traditional mail.
The commission still agreed to a safeguard. It will notify the voter by postcard if it receives a request to send an absence ballot to a different address. The commission asked clerks to keep an eye out for unusual requests.
Wait was represented in September by Michael Gableman at a preliminary hearing. He is a prominent figure among Wisconsin election deniers.
Gableman, a former justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, was appointed special counsel to the Wisconsin Assembly. He was charged with investigating the 2020 elections. spent more than $1,000,000 in taxpayer funds, but he gave oxygen to election fraud theories (including Kaardal’s allegations about irregularities at nursing homes), but couldn’t prove any. Gableman was not available for comment.
Gableman continued to exercise influence within the state Republican Party, even after being fired from his position as Assembly speaker. Gableman’s view that Wisconsin is a hotbed for election fraud is now accepted as fact by hard-right activists. He also believes that voting rights should be limited and not open up.
Bruce L. Boll, a volunteer for We the People Waukesha said, “I want it back in-person, oneday.” This is one of many groups that support tighter controls. “Voting shouldn’t be something you do on a whim. You should plan for it and do it. Like your wedding day.”
The Wisconsin Elections Commission created an Office of Inspector General in response to the new climate of distrust. This Office will help investigate the increasing number of complaints and allegations of improper conduct.
Chaos and Controversy
Some Wisconsinites were caught off guard by the chaos and controversy surrounding voting rules. People with disabilities and their families were particularly disturbed by the drop-box ruling.
Eugene Wojciechowski of West Allis went to City Hall before the August primary to pay his water bill, and to drop off his ballot with the clerk’s. He was asked for his ID by a staff member, who then informed him that he couldn’t deliver his wifes ballot. The state Supreme Court ruling meant that spouses of disabled people could not do this at the moment.
“I said, ‘What do ya mean? Wojciechowski remembered that she was in a wheelchair. He said that all ballots had been sealed, witnessed, and everything.
He said that the voting restrictions were stupid, but he eventually decided to just mail his wife her ballot, even though it wasn’t clear at the time if this was allowed.
He filed an official complaint with Wisconsin Elections Commission, but weeks later he is still frustrated.
“I mean, what is the hell going on in this place? Wojciechowski stated that he has lived in the area all his life.
“They are stopping people voting. That’s it.”
In response to a lawsuit brought by the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiff. Rick Esenberg, an attorney representing the group, claimed that state regulators had issued illegal guidance allowing ballots be delivered for others. This included potential “paid activists” and paid canvassers who go about collecting ballots and placing them in a mailbox. These allegations echo a widely circulated conspiracy theory that mules deliver a lot of fraudulent ballots.
In his oral arguments, Esenberg admitted that he did not have any evidence that such activity occurred in Wisconsin.
Four persons with disabilities sued federal court. Martha Chambers of Milwaukee was one of them. She was paralysed from the neck down when she was thrown from a horse 27-years ago.
She said, “Here they make things more difficult for my life, and my own life is already difficult enough.”
Federal Judge ruled in favor the plaintiffs. The state elections commission was ordered to inform local clerks that voters who are disabled must be allowed to get assistance from someone they choose to return absentee ballots. The clerks don’t have to verify that the voter is disabled, or ask for identification from the emissary.
It is not certain, however, that all rulings will be made uniformly.
There are approximately 1,850 local clerks in the state who oversee elections in cities, towns, and villages. Barbara Beckert (director of external advocacy for Disability Rights WI), stated that practices were inconsistent even before the federal ruling.
Beckert stated that there is still confusion in Wisconsin because voting policies and practices continue to change as a result of litigation and legislative action.
Political observers report that there is an increase in trepidation among voters about whether or not their ballots will count. They also worry about who will be watching them at the polls.
Bruce Colburn, a Milwaukee native and union activist, said that people are afraid. He is also the lead organizer of souls to the polls, which is a traditional get out-the-vote drive for Black communities. Are they going to do anything wrong? All these lawyers and people filing complaints in court for nothing are just the beginning. It makes things even more complicated. It scares people. They will be punished if they do something wrong or fail to follow through.
Jeffreys, Green Bay clerk, said that poll watchers during primary day were “aggressive” and interfering. She stated that some observers were constantly questioning voting officials, disrupting the process, and she was not cordial.
“That is a big change in Wisconsin elections. There is just more of a gaze and it is not always friendly or cooperative.
Poll watchers are not required to be residents of the area. They do not need to be trained.
Jeffreys stated that observers are an important part of the process. They help educate people and lend transparency. They are educated. Sometimes observers are the ones who uncover problems. Often, observers don’t have the right information to solve problems.
She said that the result could be based on false allegations.
Pointing Toward 2024
Two options are available to Republicans in Wisconsin if they want to get around Evers, the Democratic governor of Wisconsin, and his veto pen.
They could either unseat him in November, or increase their legislative advantage to what’s called a supermajority. It is considered a longer shot to achieve supermajorities in the Assembly and Senate. This would make bills vetoproof. It is possible to win the governor’s race.
Michels, the Republican nominee for the nomination, is the owner and operator of a construction firm. He has never held office. Trump endorsed him in the primary.
Michels believes that the 2020 election wasn’t fair, even though Biden won the state recount and multiple courts agreed. Michels answered the question on May’s “Regular Joe Show” radio show that the 2020 election had been stolen. We are aware that there was a lot of terrible stuff. Illegal legal ballots were certain. How many? Justice Gableman doesn’t know. I don’t know if anyone knows. We have to be certain. It will not happen again.
The bills that were passed by Republicans but blocked by Evers included proposals that required the state to use federal databases for checking citizenship status, remove voters from the rolls based upon information submitted to jury selection, make it more difficult to request an absentee vote and classify it as a felony in order to incorrectly attest that someone is “indefinitely constrained” so that they can vote absentee (a common provision during the pandemic).
Wisconsin is already a difficult place for voters to navigate, according to researchers. The Cost of Voting Index is a Northern Illinois University study that ranks each state. It is there at 47th because of strict voter ID laws, limitations on early voting, and proof of residency requirements.
“Over the past several election cycles other states have adopted policies which remove barriers to vote,” Michael J. Pomante II (now with the election protection group States United Action) said in an email.
He said that Wisconsin has continued to implement laws that prevent voters from casting their ballots.
All these factors, from who can vote to who runs and manages the executive branch to who runs the Legislature, will impact the outcome of the election in 2024.
The state’s certification process includes the governor and the Wisconsin Elections Commission. The secretary of state then makes it official by attaching the state seal. The state Supreme Court is available to decide on any election law disputes.
The November 8 midterm elections will determine the party that holds the offices of governor and secretary-elect when voting takes place in 2024. Michels has proposed a “full restructuring” the Wisconsin Elections Commission, if he wins.
He hasn’t given any details about what it would look like. Other than to say that he had envisioned replacing the U.S. House with a board of appointees from each state’s congressional district. Wisconsin currently has eight seats in Congress, with five being held by Republicans and three being held by Democrats.
Evers supports the commission’s current form. He pointed out that the commission’s origins were in the Legislature of the state seven years ago.
In a statement to ProPublica, he stated that “Republicans invented this system, it works.” “Our last election was fair, secure, as proved by a recount, the law enforcement agencies, courts, and other means.”