Wisconsin Republicans are moving to fire the state’s nonpartisan elections director ahead of the upcoming presidential primary in the state, casting a shadow of uncertainty over 2024 elections.
The state Senate is set to hold a hearing Tuesday on Meagan Wolfe, the administrator of the Wisconsin Elections Commission, the first step in what is likely an attempt to remove her from her position. Democrats say Republicans want to drive Wolfe out of office as retribution for decisions the commission made in 2020.
The brawl over Wolfe illustrates how, nearly three years after then-President Donald Trump’s false claims of a stolen election in 2020, election misinformation still has a grip on arguably the most important swing state on the map — with Trump potentially on the ticket again.
“I think that it’s largely out of a desire to find an explanation for Donald Trump’s loss other than fewer people voted for him than Joe Biden,” Ann S. Jacobs, one of the Democratic commissioners on the WEC, said of the machinations to remove Wolfe. “She is the chief elections officer, she offers a face to the conspiracy theories.”
The margin between Biden and Trump in Wisconsin in 2020 was extremely narrow, and Republicans have fixated on a handful of decisions the bipartisan, six-member WEC board of commissioners approved, including how absentee voting was handled in nursing homes during the pandemic.
Heightening the discord is state House leaders tapping former state Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman as a “special counsel” to review the election in the summer of 2021. Gableman embraced fringe conspiracy theories and targeted state and local election officials. He lambasted grants from a nonprofit funded by Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg that went to election offices across the state. Beyond that, he mocked Wolfe on personal terms by deriding her physical appearance.
Gableman was dismissed a bit over a year later after he turned on Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, arguably the most powerful Republican in the state, with Vos saying Gableman went “off the rails.”
But some of the underlying attacks against Wolfe stuck.
“It’s clear that enough legislators have fallen prey to false information about my work and the work of this agency that my role here is at risk,” Wolfe wrote in a letter to Wisconsin clerks in June.
Wolfe said during a commission meeting earlier this month to discuss appearing in front of the state Senate that she’s in “a really difficult spot. … I feel like I am being put in an absolutely impossible, untenable spot either way.” Wolfe said in a statement last week that she would not appear at Tuesday’s hearing.
A WEC spokesperson declined to make Wolfe available for an interview. But her supporters say she is unfairly being targeted for pandemic-era decisions that only became an issue for Republicans after Trump lost.
Wolfe was merely “implementing bipartisan votes from the commission itself,” said Democratic state Sen. Mark Spreitzer, who serves on the Senate election committee. “Even if you disagree with the Commission’s decisions, I don’t think it’s fair to take it out on Meagan.”
Sen. Dan Knodl, who chairs the committee holding the hearing on Tuesday, declined an interview request through a spokesperson.
Wolfe, who is widely respected among her peers working on running elections, has the support of election officials in both parties from Wisconsin. Election clerks are expected to speak in support of her on Tuesday, and bipartisan WEC commissioners have said Wolfe should remain in her role.
“She’s qualified, she’s carried out the dictates of the commission, and frankly I don’t think that we will find anyone else who would take the job who would be qualified,” said WEC Chair Don Millis, a Republican appointed to the commission by Vos. “It’s a very difficult position, she’s under fire. I feel sorry for her for all the things she has to go through.”
But the fight over Wolfe’s service as the state’s chief election official seems headed to the courts — with Democrats in the state arguing that legislative Republicans don’t have the authority to take a vote to expel her.
That’s because Wolfe was never officially renominated for the role in the first place. Democratic WEC commissioners strategically abstained from a vote doing so because they feared Republicans in the state Senate would vote to remove her if her nomination came before the full chamber.
Willis, the GOP chair of the commission, said that while he supports Wolfe, he believed Democrats on the commission were making a grave mistake by not officially voting to approve her nomination — which could exacerbate the fight around her role. “I think the members of the Senate felt it was an insult,” he said.
In a letter to the state Senate last week, Democratic Attorney General Joshua Kaul argued that the Senate had no right to vote on Wolfe’s appointment.
“This is not a close question under state law,” he wrote, arguing that the commission had not officially nominated her to serve another term. As long as Wolfe is a “holdover appointee,” he continued, she can remain in the job.
Wolfe “may legally remain in office following the expiration” of her term, Kaul argued — citing a recent state Supreme Court decision where a Republican appointee was allowed to stay in office following the expiration of his term to a state board.
Should Senate Republicans continue to push ahead with Wolfe’s vote, Spreitzer, the Democratic state senator, said this will almost assuredly head to the courts.
“If Republicans take it that far and take that vote … we end up in court,” he said. “And who sues who first, I have no idea.”