ProPublicaPulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up The Big Story newsletterSubscribe to this story to your email list.
Since 2020, Wisconsin has witnessed a lot of attempts to taint presidential elections.
A group of phony electors tried to claim the state’s electoral votes for Donald Trump. Wisconsin’s top lawmaker launched a yearlong inquiry led by a lawyer spewing 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.
Sometimes, all those efforts failed spectacularly.
On a deeper level, however, the election deniers won. They helped change the way Election Day will look in 2022 for crucial midterm elections in Wisconsin — and they are creating an even more favorable climate for Trump and Republicans in 2024.
The conservative majority on Wisconsin’s Supreme Court banned drop boxes. They were a quick and convenient way to vote during the pandemic. The ruling, which was upheld by a federal court, meant that persons with disabilities could no longer help deliver their ballots to their municipal clerks.
More recently, in Waukesha County, a judge sided with the Republican Party in a ruling that barred local clerks from fixing even minor errors or omissions — such as a missing ZIP code — on absentee ballot envelopes. The clerks could contact voters or return the corrected ballot. This was another example in a state that is known for restricting voter access.
The Republicans control both the Wisconsin Assembly (dominated by Republicans) and the Wisconsin Senate (dominated by Democrats). have passed a raft of billsThis would tighten voting laws. Each was vetoed and withdrawn by Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat. But Evers is in a close race for reelection against Republican Tim Michels, who has said that “on day one” he will call a special session of the Legislature to “fix the election mess.”
Philip Rocco is an associate professor in political science at Marquette University in Milwaukee. He describes a dynamic he has witnessed across the country, and how it plays out in Wisconsin. An onslaught of attacks on the voting process, he said, produces “an atmosphere of procedural chaos going into Election Day.”
“Just in general, it’s created a dangerous environment for elections to occur in.”
Republicans often reap the benefits of a lower turnout and frame the battles around law issues, while Democrats argue that the fight revolves around voting rights. Both sides see no benefit in giving up.
The seemingly daily news of legal machinations, legislative committee hearings, proposed laws or official investigations of Wisconsin’s election system have left many voters worried about what to expect when they next try to cast a ballot and unsure of whether their vote will count.
Wisconsin is a swing state with 10 electoral votes, a history of narrow margins and will again be a key prize for the 2024 presidential election.
The importance of the state was made clear by the announcement by the Republican National Committee that its 2024 convention would be held in Milwaukee, a largely overlooked, Democratic-led, city. The convention will saturate the state’s largest media market, reaching the conservative-leaning suburbs and the quiet towns and farms beyond.
But first comes November’s midterm election, with a chance to consolidate Republican power in the state and shape oversight of coming elections. Both ends of political spectrum are acutely aware what is at stake.
“What can happen in 2024 is largely going to be determined by what happens this November,” said Wisconsin attorney Jeffrey Mandell, president of a progressive firm dedicated to protecting voting rights.
Endless Legal Battles
In September, nine attorneys, dressed in dark suits and briefcases, entered a Waukesha County courtroom. The extreme minutiae in Wisconsin election law were being litigated once again.
They must now decide how to deal absentee vote envelopes that contain only partial addresses of witnesses.
Before then, municipal clerks could simply fill out the information. The Republican Party of Waukesha County claimed that this was illegal and wanted to ban clerks. Some voters might be able to have their ballots returned, and then figure out how to fix them so that they can vote.
A Republican-controlled legislator supported a prohibition. Lawyers for government regulators, Democrats, and the League of Women VotersIt was opposed by many. The GOP side won the day.
Circuit Judge Michael J. Aprahamian expressed doubts about absentee voter registration in Wisconsin and the oversight provided to it by the bipartisan Wisconsin Elections Commission. The Commission has seen every move scrutinized ever since Trump and his associates started questioning the 2020 results.
Aprahamian excoriated the commission, saying that “it is little wonder that proponents from all corners of the political spectrum are critical, cynical and suspicious of how elections are managed and overseen.”
As court scenes like this unfold in Wisconsin elsewhere, a healthy part of the litigation can also be traced to Erick Káardal, a Minnesota lawyer who is special counsel to the antiabortion Thomas More Society.
Kaardal despite some high-profile setbacks at Wisconsin, told ProPublicaHe plans to continue to examine the finer points of Wisconsin election laws, which take up at most 122 pages in state statute.
His ongoing targets include the Wisconsin Elections Commission, which interprets laws and gives guidance to municipal clerks around the state; the Electronic Registration Information Center, a voter roll management consortium; and the Center for Election Innovation & Research, a nonprofit that seeks to improve turnout.
“We’ll be litigating with the WEC and ERIC and CEIR for years to come,” Kaardal said.
Kaardal’s persistence is not appreciated by everyone. A federal judge admonished him for “political grandstanding” and filing bad-faith litigation against then-Vice President Mike Pence in December 2020 to prevent the counting of electoral votes. And in May, a judge in Madison said it was “ridiculous” for Kaardal to label pandemic-related grants to election offices as bribes.
Kaardal cited his legal experience and investigative skills to defend his tactics. He stated that he only wants to hold the government accountable and ensure fair elections.
Among Kaardal’s most passionate causes is his ongoing effort to document election fraud at nursing homes. Kaardal claims that during the pandemic, an unknown number cognitively impaired people who were deemed incompetent to vote by court-ordered guardianships voted, possibly with illegal assistance. Kaardal believes that the voter rolls do not accurately reflect court orders.
Kaardal filed lawsuits in Wisconsin against 13 probate administrators to demand the release of confidential documents detailing the names and addresses of individuals under guardianship who lost their right to vote. The petition was rejected in one case. However, the other cases are ongoing.
Dane County Clerk of Court Carlo Esqueda worries that Kaardal’s quest is giving people the wrong impression. He points out that even if a guardian is not allowed to vote, they can still exercise their rights. This right can be revoked in certain cases due to severe cognitive issues.
“Talk radio is saying everybody under guardianship should not be able to vote. That’s simply not true,” he said.
As they are under increasing pressure to handle absentee votes, election clerks also cite disinformation.
Celestine Jeffreys, the clerk in Green Bay, was forced to defend her integrity when a local resident represented by Kaardal filed a formal complaint with the Wisconsin Elections Commission this year, accusing her of “ballot harvesting” in the spring 2022 municipal elections by accepting multiple absentee ballots from an individual voter. The complaint is still pending.
Matt Roeser was the resident who filed this complaint. ProPublica that the heavy reliance on absentee voting during the pandemic “opened up a door we’ve never had opened before. It created a lot of suspicion.”
Jeffreys stated in court filing that she was able to accept multiple ballots when they were delivered by someone other than herself and one for a disabled person.
Her legal brief called the complaint “another attempt by Attorney Kaardal to court scandal where there is none — intentionally undermining public confidence in legitimately-run elections in the process.”
Wisconsin resident Harry Wait drew national attention in July when he announced that he’d gone on a state website and arranged for absentee ballots in the names of the Racine mayor, the state Assembly speaker and several others to be sent to his home.
Wait claimed that it does not require voters to enter their names or date of birth.
The antic angered the Wisconsin Elections Commission, which held that it was a serious breach meant to undermine the state’s election system. Wait was charged with misappropriation and election fraud, both misdemeanors.
Wait was treated like a hero one week later, despite his charges.
Wait formed H.O.T. The government stands for Honest, Open, Transparent, and was established four years ago. perceived government misconductIn Racine. It’s now focused on rooting out what it sees as widespread election fraud throughout Wisconsin and is taking special interest in absentee ballots. The group even briefly considered a plan to steal leftover drop boxes in southeast Wisconsin to ensure they couldn’t be used after the state Supreme Court ruling.
Wait has made it clear he’s no fan of the Wisconsin Elections Commission. “I’m going to make a declaration today that WEC is our enemy,” he told the crowd inside the bar.
He was proud how, in his view, he had exposed the flaws in the state government’s MyVote websiteThis website was created to assist Wisconsinites in finding their polling place, registering to vote, and ordering an absentee ballot. The website, he said, “really needs to be shut down.”
Wait said in an interview that he plans to defend his action in court on the basis that, in his view, the MyVote system is “not a legal channel to order a ballot. It’s a rogue system.”
Meagan Wolfe is the administrator of Wisconsin Elections Commission. She has defended online voting. It “requires a person to provide the same information or more information than he or she would have to provide if the person made the ballot request through traditional mail,” she said at a commission meeting.
However, the commission agreed to a second safeguard: It will notify the voter by postcard if it receives a request for an absentee ballot to be sent to a new address. The commission also requested that clerks be alert for unusual requests.
Wait was represented by Michael Gableman in September’s preliminary hearing. He is a prominent figure among Wisconsin election deniers.
Gableman, a former justice of the state Supreme Court, was special counsel to the Wisconsin Assembly and was charged with investigating the 2020 election. While spending more than $1 million in taxpayer money, he lent oxygen to election-fraud theories — including Kaardal’s accusations about nursing home irregularities — but couldn’t prove any. Gableman was not available for comment.
Gableman continued to exert influence within state Republican Party to incite citizens’ anger, even after being removed from the position by the Assembly speaker. Among hard-right activists, Gableman’s view of Wisconsin as a hotbed of election fraud is now taken for granted, as is the belief that voting options should be restricted, not opened up.
“I want it back to in-person, one day,” said Bruce L. Boll, a volunteer with We the People Waukesha, one of numerous groups supporting tighter controls. “Voting should not be a whim. It should be something you plan and do. 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. The drop-box ruling was particularly troubling for people with disabilities, and their families.
Before the August primary, Eugene Wojciechowski, of West Allis, went to City Hall to pay his water bill and drop off his ballot and his wife’s at the clerk’s office. A staffer asked him for ID and then told him he could not deliver his wife’s ballot. The state Supreme Court decision meant that spouses of disabled people could not do this at the time.
“I said: ‘What do you mean? She’s in a wheelchair,’” Wojciechowski recalled. He noted that the ballots were “all sealed and witnessed and everything.”
The voting constraints were “stupid,” he said, but ultimately he decided he would just mail his wife’s ballot for her, even though it was unclear at the time whether that was permitted.
He filed an official complaint to the Wisconsin Elections Commission. However, he remains frustrated and angry weeks later.
“I mean, what the hell is going on in this city? I’ve lived here all my life,” Wojciechowski said.
“They’re stopping people from voting, that’s all it is.”
The state Supreme Court decision came in response to a suit brought by a conservative group, the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty. An attorney for the group, Rick Esenberg, argued that regulators had issued unlawful guidance allowing ballots to be delivered on behalf of others, including potentially “paid activists, paid canvassers who go around and collect ballots and place them in a mailbox.” Those allegations echoed a widely circulated conspiracy theory about people, labeled mules, delivering heaps of fraudulent ballots.
In his oral arguments Esenberg acknowledged that he didn’t have any evidence that such activity occurred in Wisconsin.
Four people with disabilities sued in federal Court, including Martha Chambers, a Milwaukee resident who was left paralysed from her neck down 27 years ago after being thrown off a horse.
“Here they are making things more difficult for me, and my life is difficult enough,” she said.
Federal Judge ruled in favor the plaintiffs and ordered that the state elections commission inform local clerks that voters with disabilities should be allowed to receive assistance from someone they choose to return their absentee votes. The clerks don’t have to verify that the voter is disabled, or ask for identification from the emissary.
Still, it’s not at all certain that the ruling will be followed uniformly.
The state employs approximately 1,850 local clerks to administer elections in cities, towns, and villages. Barbara Beckert (director of external advocacy for Disability rights Wisconsin) stated that before the federal ruling, practice were inconsistent.
“There is continuing confusion in Wisconsin as voting practices and policies continue to change in response to litigation as well as action by the Legislature,” Beckert said.
Political observers say there’s increased trepidation among all kinds of voters over whether their ballot will count and who will be watching at the polls.
“People are afraid,” said Milwaukee native Bruce Colburn, a union activist and lead organizer of Souls to the Polls, a traditional drive to get out the vote in Black communities. “Are they going to do something wrong? You have all these lawyers and people complaining in the court system for nothing. It makes it even more difficult. It scares people. If they get something wrong or they don’t do it exactly right, something’s going to happen to them.”
Jeffreys, the clerk in Green Bay, described poll watchers on primary day this year as “aggressive and interfering.” Rather than being cordial and unobtrusive, she said, some observers were repeatedly questioning voting officials and disrupting the process.
“That, I think, is a really big change with elections in Wisconsin. There’s just a lot more of a gaze, and the gaze is not always friendly and cooperative.”
Poll watchers, unlike poll workers who must be local residents and carry out official duties, can come from anywhere. They do not need to be trained.
“Observers are a very important part of the process,” Jeffreys said. “They lend transparency; they help educate people. They themselves are educated. Sometimes observers are the ones who uncover problems. And oftentimes observers are not equipped with the information in order to do that.”
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, and his veto pen.
They can oust him in November or increase their legislative advantage up to what is known as a supermajority. The longer shot is to get supermajorities both in the Assembly or the Senate, which would make the bills veto-proof. Winning the governor’s race is not.
Michels, the Republican nominee is the owner of a building company and has never held office. Trump endorsed him during the primary.
Michels accepted the idea that the 2020 election wasn’t fair, even though Biden won a state recount and multiple courts agreed. Asked if the 2020 election was stolen, Michels told the “Regular Joe Show” on the radio in May: “Maybe, right. We know that there was a lot more bad stuff. There were certain illegal legal ballots. How many? I don’t know if Justice Gableman knows. I don’t know if anybody knows. We need to be sure. I will make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Among the bills passed by Republicans and blocked by Evers were proposals that would require the state to use federal databases to check citizenship status; remove voters from the rolls based on information submitted for jury selection; make it harder to request an absentee ballot; and classify it a felony to incorrectly attest that a person is “indefinitely confined” so they can vote absentee (a provision widely used during the pandemic).
Wisconsin is already a location that researchers have identified as difficult to navigate for voters. The Cost of Voting IndexNorthern Illinois University’s research project on each state lists it at 47th place, due to a strict criteria voter ID law, limits on early votingProviding proof of residency is required in order to register for the drive.
“Over the last several election cycles, other states have adopted policies that remove barriers to voting,” one of the researchers, Michael J. Pomante II, now with the election protection group States United Action, said in an email.
But Wisconsin, he added, “has continued to pass and implement laws that create barriers to casting a ballot.”
In 2024, all these factors — from who is able to vote to who runs the executive branch and who runs the Legislature — will play a role in determining which presidential candidate gets Wisconsin’s electoral votes.
The governor and the Wisconsin Elections Commission are part of the state’s certification process, with the secretary of state making it official by affixing the state seal. The state Supreme Court is available to decide on any election law disputes.
The Nov. 8 midterm elections will determine which party holds office as governor and secretary-of-state when voting takes place in 2024. Michels has proposed a “full reorganization”If he is elected, he will be a member of the Wisconsin Elections Commission.
He hasn’t explained what that would look like, other than to say in a primary debate that he envisioned replacing it with a board made up of appointees named by each of the state’s congressional districts. Wisconsin now has eight seats at the U.S. House. Five of them are held by Republicans, three by Democrats.
Evers supports the commission’s current form. He noted its origins in the state’s Legislature seven years ago.
“Republicans created this system, and it works,” he said in a statement released to ProPublica. “Our last election was fair and secure, as was proven by a recount, our law enforcement agencies, and the courts.”