Jeramey Jannene
City Hall

Election Commission Leader Barely Confirmed

Approved by 8-7 vote, with council members charging she lied during approval process.

By - Jul 7th, 2020 12:51 pm
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Claire Woodall-Vogg appears before the Common Council's Judiciary and Legislation Committee in June 2020. Image from City Channel.

Claire Woodall-Vogg appears before the Common Council’s Judiciary and Legislation Committee in June 2020. Image from City Channel.

The Milwaukee Election Commission has a new Executive Director, but many Common Council members aren’t happy with the process and the actions of the appointee. The position is responsible for leading the city’s elections, including distributing and processing ballots, hiring poll workers and ensuring compliance with state election law.

Claire Woodall-Vogg was nominated to serve in the role by Mayor Tom Barrett in late May. She was unanimously endorsed by a council committee on June 8th, but the full council sent every appointee back for further review on racial equity on June 16th in the wake of the George Floyd protest movement.

The Common Council confirmed her appointment on an 8-7 vote on Tuesday morning, but not before a highly-unusual series of events came to a head, including three different votes related to whether and how she would be approved.

Woodall-Vogg, who has worked for the commission since 2013, less a short stint as Cedarburg City Clerk, sent an email withdrawing from consideration for the post on June 25th, triggering controversy within City Hall as longtime commission director Neil Albrecht was set to retire and deputy director Theresa Gabriel had already resigned. In her letter withdrawing, Woodall-Vogg blamed the council and said she wasn’t prepared to endure the “worst and most challenging year of my life” and be “less transparent and honest” as was advised by an unnamed mentor.

“No member of this Council asked me what I have done or plan to do to counteract and remove the barriers and improve the voting rights of the citizens of Milwaukee – behind closed doors or at my hearing. No one expressed any doubt about my commitment to the City or to ensuring that democracy is accessible to all citizens, especially those targeted and marginalized by systematic racism. In fact, not a single committee member asked a question at my hearing,” she wrote.

But some of those questions actually were asked at her hearing, and council members also said they asked questions about voting access for people of color in private meetings.

“I think it is shameful that someone would blatantly lie about their interactions with the council,” said Alderwoman Nikiya Dodd on Tuesday. “What I do regret is not repeating those questions in the Common Council hearing.”

Ald. Milele A. Coggs, who made the motion to hold all of the appointments, said she emailed Woodall-Vogg after she withdrew to thank her for her service. Urban Milwaukee has confirmed Coggs sent a one line email at 2:49 a.m. after Woodall-Vogg withdrew shortly after 9:00 p.m. on June 25th.

“The initial email withdrawing wasn’t 100 percent honest, but okay, that’s her choice,” said Coggs. But she said an email that came in response to her thank you was unacceptable. Woodall-Vogg emailed Coggs back at 5:31 a.m.

Coggs, saying she was reading from an email from Woodall-Vogg, said, “so nice to know you do check your emails.” She said Woodall-Vogg was critical of Gabriel, who resigned shortly after Woodall-Vogg was nominated. Council members Chantia Lewis, JoCasta Zamarripa and Dodd had asked on June 16th why Gabriel wasn’t given the position. Woodall-Vogg’s email, according to Coggs, referred to Gabriel by her race and sexual orientation (Gabriel is an openly gay Asian), and said Gabriel had “zero passion for recruiting and hiring poll workers, which is 80 percent of her job.” But the email actually quotes comments by Dodd and Zamarripa from the June 16th meeting.

“This email was completely unprofessional and disrespectful,” said Coggs.

The alderwoman said she received an apology email thereafter. Coggs did not provide a copy of either email to Urban Milwaukee by the time of publication, but Urban Milwaukee was provided a copy of the email exchange by multiple city employees. Coggs did not respond to a text message from Urban Milwaukee, but did post Woodall-Vogg’s email on social media.

Other city hall insiders have expressed frustration with Coggs’ responsiveness, and how it led to complicating this matter. “I’d suggest you start talking to appointees outside of public forums. I’m not a politician, but I am a damn good election administrator who was committed to expanding voting in the midst of a pandemic,” wrote Woodall-Vogg in her email.

“It’s well known that she is difficult to reach at best and avoiding work at worst,” said one insider.

“The council has gone along with many of her grand pronouncements for years, knowing no follow up would ever be done by her. But this one actually jeopardized the smooth functioning of an election that could be pivotal for the world’s future, so her colleagues were finally willing to put results before rhetoric,” said another.

And despite the dysfunction, and a job offer to serve as West Allis City Clerk, Woodall-Vogg ultimately decided she did want the job. She sent an email to the council on July 2nd reversing course and saying she wanted the job.

“I would like to express to you my continuing desire to serve in the role of executive director of the Election Commission. Over the past week, through thoughtful conversations with members of the Council, community partners, other city employees, and poll workers, I have been assured of the support and assistance that the Election Commission needs in order to remove as many barriers to voting as possible,” she wrote in a new letter to the Common Council.

Ald. Mark Borkowski was one of the council members who said he reached out. “This is a critical election,” he said Tuesday. “It could be debatable that this election is the greatest in the city’s history because of the swing state status and because Milwaukee has the greatest number of voters.”

He moved to have Woodall-Vogg approved during the full council meeting on Tuesday morning. “I am willing to do whatever it is to acknowledge that urgency and get a qualified person on board [as soon as possible.],” said the alderman.

But Ald. Ashanti Hamilton, who chairs the Judiciary & Legislation Committee, which oversees this appointment, said he was disappointed no committee hearing was being held.

Ald. Robert Bauman, who serves on the committee alongside Hamilton and Borkowski, said he thought Woodall-Vogg’s appearance alongside Albrecht on June 29th to answer questions about an 11:30 p.m. emergency council meeting to approve early voting sites answered his questions. He said it was effectively a second confirmation hearing. “I am not sure what new information we are going to learn by holding this,” he said about a motion to send the appointment back to the committee. “There is literally nobody in charge of the election commission as we speak.”

On a 6-9 vote the Common Council rejected Hamilton’s measure to send the appointment back for another hearing. On a 7-8 vote, with President Cavalier Johnson casting the deciding vote, the council also rejected a move to form into a committee of the whole and interview her on the spot.

“In a situation where so many council members have questions they want in the open, it is very disappointing that so many council members would be opposed to simply allowing them to ask those questions,” said Hamilton, without identifying any of the questions. “I think it’s unfortunate that this has been played up as some kind of political grandstanding. I think that’s not the truth.”

Lewis was critical of Woodall-Vogg’s actions in the past weeks. “If you’re doing that under this level of stress, what are you going to do next?” she asked.

But the council ultimately voted to confirm her, with the council president, who votes last, ultimately casting the deciding vote. Her appointment was opposed by Hamilton, Dodd, Coggs, Lewis, Zamarripa, Khalif Rainey and Russell W. Stamper, II.

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Categories: City Hall, Politics

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