GOP lawmakers today called on Elections Commission Administrator Meagan Wolfe and staff to resign after the Racine County sheriff accused the agency of breaking the law by suspending a requirement that special voting deputies help nursing home residents cast ballots.
The state Dem Party, meanwhile, dismissed the allegations leveled by Sheriff Christopher Schmaling as a publicity stunt.
During a news conference in Yorkville, Schmaling insisted he wasn’t seeking to overturn the results of the 2020 election in which Joe Biden beat Donald Trump in Wisconsin by under 21,000 votes.
Instead, he argued the probe was about restoring confidence in Wisconsin elections and called on Dem AG Josh Kaul to open a statewide probe into the Elections Commission’s conduct. Schmaling, who supported Trump in the 2020 election, said the state Department of Justice had already declined his office’s offer to share the details of its review.
Schmaling also called on other sheriffs to conduct similar probes.
“That is the only way, in my view, that we will establish fairness and restore integrity in our statewide election process,” he said.
DOJ spokeswoman Gillian Drummond said the agency was ready to assist any local authorities that need help investigating “credible evidence of fraud.”
“Here, DOJ was previously in contact with Sheriff Schmaling and DOJ advised that certain interviews be conducted that had not been at that time. Significantly, no charges have been filed in this case by the Racine County DA’s office,” Drummond said, noting the agency wasn’t aware of similar allegations elsewhere in Wisconsin.
Schmaling made the allegations against the WEC after a 10-month investigation that followed a complaint from the daughter of a woman who lived at a Racine County assisted care facility and cast a ballot in the 2020 election.
Sgt. Mike Luell, who led the investigation, said he ultimately contacted 42 families who had relatives living at the assisted care facility. Eight expressed concerns that their relatives were in cognitive decline and may have been improperly influenced to vote.
Luell suggested members of the commission may have committed misconduct in office by directing local clerks to break the law on special voting deputies.
Schmaling said his office would send the results of its investigation to the district attorney and any charges would be up to that office. Luell suggested those working at the assisted care facility who helped residents vote were simply following the guidance from the Elections Commission, even though they may have broken the law in doing so. Ultimate responsibility, he said, rested with the commission.
The state Dem Party accused Schmalling’s office of breaking the law by removing absentee ballot certification envelopes from the custody of the Mount Pleasant clerk, who is responsible for maintaining custody of them.
“The Racine County Sheriff’s Department has been wasting taxpayer money in an attempt to rehash discredited claims about the 2020 election results,” said party Executive Director Devin Remiker. “There weren’t any charges filed or even any suggested. The press conference didn’t shed light on any election fraud, but did reveal the Racine County Sheriff’s department may have broken the law during their own farce of an investigation.”
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, was among those GOP lawmakers who called on Wolfe to resign.
“Clearly there is a severe mismanagement of WEC, and a new administrator is needed,” Vos said.
Commissioner Dean Knudson, a former GOP lawmaker and Vos’ appointee to the body, supported the original decision to suspend the special voting deputy requirement. As 2020 wore on, he expressed an interest in restoring the requirement.
Vos’ statement didn’t address Knudson.
Gov. Tony Evers, slammed Vos for his comments, saying said it was “beneath the offices we hold” to publicly and baselessly disparage public servants.
“Speaker Vos’ comments are unbecoming of his office and the people we serve,” Evers said. “It’s my expectation — and one Wisconsinites share — that elected officials in this state treat others with civility and respect. The speaker’s behavior today fell woefully short of those expectations.”
State Rep. Joe Sanfelippo, R-New Berlin, called for the “immediate dismissal” of Wolfe as well as any staffer who provided advice to the commission on the issue. Sanfelippo said Kaul should resign as well if he refuses to uphold the law.
The state Senate voted 32-0 in May 2019 to confirm Wolfe for a term that ends June 30, 2023. The commission originally nominated her for the post after the state Senate rejected Mike Haas for the job, citing the old Government Accountability Board’s handling of a John Doe probe into former Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign. Haas worked for the GAB before Republicans disbanded it in favor of the Elections and Ethics commissions.
Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, voted to confirm Wolfe two years ago, but said today, “There needs to be mass resignations at WEC and prosecutions where appropriate. WEC’s reputation is damaged beyond repair.”
Wolfe said in a statement she has a “statutory obligation to rise above political attempts to undermine our elections.”
“Despite the current political firestorm, I will continue to apply my full focus on the important work of serving all Wisconsin’s voters and local election officials,” Wolfe said. “It would be irresponsible to spend any energy engaging a blatantly partisan and coordinated attempt to baselessly challenge the integrity of democracy in our great state.”
Commission Chair Ann Jacobs, a Dem appointee, rejected the suggestion the body broke the law with the guidance it provided clerks last year.
She noted many assisted care facilities banned visitors during the COVID-19 pandemic and weren’t willing to allow special voting deputies into the facilities to help with absentee balloting.
State law lays out a process for residents of assisted living facilities to receive absentee ballots if special voting deputies can’t access the residences. The deputies, accompanied by one Dem observer and one Republican, must make two attempts to access a facility before clerks can send absentee ballots to voters who request one. The commission suspended the requirement that deputies make two attempts to visit a facility before ballots are sent. Some members argued that waiting for the officials to be denied entrance twice delayed the sending of absentee ballots and jeopardized residents’ ability to have their votes returned in time to be counted.
“The commission very thoughtfully worked through the complicated issue of trying to address the COVID-19 limitations that were in place and the requirements of state statutes and the right of those residents to be allowed to cast a ballot,” Jacobs said.
GOP appointee Bob Spindell originally supported the decision to suspend the requirement when it was put in place in March 2020. Later in the year, he argued the commission should again allow special voting deputies to visit facilities if they took precautions, particularly ahead of the fall elections.
Spindell said today he took no position on whether the commission broke the law with its actions, though he called it “bad judgment on the part of the commissioners to not allow special voting deputies to go into the facilities.”
Note: Edited 10:17 a.m., Oct. 29, 2021, to add Evers’ comments.