David Becker has never been so “scared and concerned” about the state of American democracy. During a 25-year career that included work as a voting rights attorney under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, he says he hasn’t witnessed anything like what’s unfolding more than a year after the 2020 presidential election: a nationwide effort by Donald Trump supporters to contest President Joe Biden’s victory, threaten state and local elections officials and shift more power over elections to Republican-controlled legislatures.
Wisconsin, where Biden won by fewer than 21,000 votes, has emerged as a major front in that battle.
That’s why Becker, who directs the Center for Election Innovation & Research (CEIR), joined bipartisan voices at the state Capitol in mid-December in defending state and local elections officials against attempts to discredit their work.
“There are doubts that are being inflamed by the loser of the presidential election and others,” Becker said at the media briefing. “And this is causing some great crisis in our democracy.”
Speaking at the event, state Sen. Kathleen Bernier, R-Chippewa Falls and the Senate elections committee chair, urged fellow Republicans to stop trying to discredit the bipartisan elections system they created.
“We have a great system here, and no one should falsely accuse election officials of cheating,” she said. “The misinformation and disinformation that has been perpetuated is very frustrating to me.”
Bernier, who oversaw elections for 12 years as the Chippewa County clerk, accused some Republicans of spreading falsehoods about Trump’s 2020 election loss to “jazz up” their political base. And she called on former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman to finish his partisan review of the election soon — to limit the damage to the Republican Party and Wisconsin’s democracy.
“I am a Republican. I vote conservative. I want Republicans to win and for our good policies to continue forward. This is a charade — what’s going on with this constant drumbeat of all the massive voter fraud,” she said. “There’s a simple explanation for almost everything that people accuse election officials of doing.”
The ongoing election scrutiny includes Gableman’s taxpayer-funded probe ordered by Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and GOP calls for the resignation of Wisconsin Elections Commission Administrator Meagan Wolfe and other members of the bipartisan commission that Republicans created five years ago under then-Gov. Scott Walker.
Gableman recently issued a slew of subpoenas to election officials and municipal IT departments seeking testimony and information about voting machines and voters; those are on top of subpoenas he served on election officials and select Wisconsin mayors earlier in the fall.
Dane County Judge Rhonda Lanford has said she will rule by Jan. 10 on whether she will grant a temporary restraining order, requested by Attorney General Josh Kaul, on subpoenas issued by Gableman in October that seek to compel representatives of the Wisconsin Elections Commission to testify in private instead of at a legislative hearing.
The “constant drumbeat” of voter fraud by GOP leaders also comes as election officials around the country are facing harassment and threats.
In Wisconsin, Claire Woodall-Vogg, executive director of the Milwaukee Election Commission, has faced a flood of vulgar messages and threats since overseeing Milwaukee’s election that Trump supporters falsely claimed was tainted by late-night “ballot dumps” favoring Biden.
Rather than regrouping during a typical post-election lull, election officials in 2021 faced harassment from “frivolous subpoenas” issued by state legislatures, overwhelming records requests, and personal threats, Becker said.
“You’ve seen all three of these things happen in Wisconsin, directed at state officials and local officials and others,” he said.
An international democracy expert told Wisconsin Watch in an interview that she is struck by the brazenness of the attempts to undermine democracy in the state compared to what she sees abroad. Laura Thornton is director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund, an international organization that defends democratic elections from autocratic influencers.
“Normally the takeovers are a little bit slyer or more nuanced,” Thornton says, but Wisconsin Republicans are “saying the quiet parts out loud.”
She adds: “It’s terrifying how the very basics of what we all took for granted are just crumbling.”
Wisconsin elections officials are not the only ones under pressure. A Benenson Strategy Group survey of 233 local election officials conducted in April found that 1 in 3 were concerned about feeling unsafe or being harassed because of their job, while 1 in 6 said they had been threatened.
While appearing at partisan events and supporting former Republican Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch’s bid for governor, Gableman in recent weeks has sought court permission to jail the mayors of Madison and Green Bay if they don’t meet with him soon. He has accused the mayors of refusing to answer questions about their cities’ elections during the probe Vos authorized under a $676,000 contract.
Separately, Racine County Sheriff Christopher Schmaling in November called for criminal charges against five of six members of the Elections Commission for telling local clerks to send absentee ballots to nursing homes rather than sending special deputies to oversee in-person voting due to the coronavirus pandemic. Schmaling, a Trump supporter, called that a violation of state law.
Some Republicans have seized on that issue amid questions about whether staff at a Mount Pleasant, Wisconsin, nursing home improperly influenced the voting of a few residents with cognitive problems. Vos called for Wolfe’s resignation in October in response to Schmaling’s nursing home voting probe.
Said Bernier: “That action that may or may not have occurred within the nursing home reflects on the individual who broke that law. Not the Wisconsin Election Commission and not Meagan Wolfe. They didn’t break the law.”
The Elections Commission changed its guidance to clerks about nursing home special deputies weeks before the 2020 primary, and it carried those changes into the general election. Those votes came as Wisconsin’s GOP-controlled Legislature chose not to reconvene, becoming the nation’s least-active full-time legislature.
“Any accommodations made because of COVID were done out in the open and transparently,” Becker said. “The rules were set by Election Day, and to relitigate that now over 400 days after the election doesn’t bear any rational relation to reality.”
The Legislative Audit Bureau in October recommended 30 procedural improvements that the Elections Commission says it is working to address and 18 possible legislative changes after reviewing how clerks followed state laws during the 2020 presidential primary and general election. Among other recommendations, the bureau called for improved training for municipal clerks on identifying potential duplicate voter registration records and ballot processing — and to make sure that absentee ballot certificates comply with state law requiring witness signatures.
Wisconsin lawmakers in 2021 introduced the state’s highest tally of election-related bills in more than a decade, according to a National Conference of State Legislatures database last updated on Dec. 9. Of the 67 election-focused bills introduced in 2021, Republicans authored more than 3 in 4.
While the audit bureau report offered no evidence to support Trump’s baseless claims of voter fraud, Vos and some other Republicans said its findings justified further investigation of the state election administration.
Becker is among those who have applauded state and local election officials’ efforts to navigate the pandemic amid unprecedented voter turnout in 2020.
In a Nov. 8 letter to Vos, a bipartisan group of more than 50 election officials praised Wolfe’s “competence and excellence” and encouraged Vos and his colleagues to “speak out against this line of harassment and speak truth to all Wisconsin voters.”
Wolfe remains “determined to stay in the position and fight for fair and accurate elections,” Elections Commission spokesperson Riley Vetterkind told Wisconsin Watch.
For American citizens watching the post-election scrum play out, there can be a feeling of “helplessness,” Thornton says. “When I have seen progress on democracy (internationally), it does mostly come from everyday people banding together.”
She says the question for the electorate is: “Are we at the point where people care enough?”
The nonprofit Wisconsin Watch is the news arm of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.