Steven Walters
The State of Politics

Senate Targets Elections Commission

Three separate elections investigations pushing for changes. What's the likely impact?

By - Nov 1st, 2021 10:16 am
A SafeVote dropbox. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

A SafeVote dropbox. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

There are by now three investigations – by the Legislative Audit Bureau, the Assembly and the Senate – into how November 2020 elections were run by 1,835 municipal clerks and 72 county clerks and overseen by the state Elections Commission.

Where are the three likely to stand one year from now, when the state is nearing the November 2022 elections for the U.S. Senate, Congress, governor and Legislature? Let’s consider each of the separate investigations.

The only one conducted by non-partisan professionals was the Audit Bureau’s report, made public last week. In it, auditors questioned administrative guidance given local clerks by the Elections Commission, found errors (dubbed “sloppy” by Republican Sen. Kathy Bernier, a former Chippewa County clerk) by local officials and recommended 18 changes in election laws to the Legislature and 30 changes in Elections Commission practices.

 The Audit Bureau found no evidence of improper vote totals, however. Auditors sampled 60 voting machines and found that all but one had given accurate vote totals; incomplete documentation made it impossible to determine the accuracy of one machine.

“Despite concerns with statewide elections procedures, this audit showed us that the election was largely safe and secure,” said Republican Sen. Robert Cowles, co-chair of the legislative committee that ordered the audit in February.

President Joe Biden beat former President  Donald Trump by almost 21,000 votes in the 2020 election.

Because the Audit Bureau report is the only investigation completed so far, it’s important to consider some of its recommendations to the Legislature:

-Specify exactly what information a witness certifying that someone properly voted absentee must provide and clarify how municipal clerks can legally correct errors or missing information about those witnesses.

-Clarify whether so-called “drop boxes,” where voters can drop off absentee ballots, are legal.

-Create new rules governing the conduct of special voting deputies sent to assisted living centers and nursing homes.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos named former Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman to run the Assembly’s probe of how the 2020 election was conducted. Although Vos approved subpoenas for documents and local officials as part of Gableman’s investigation, city officials refused to comply and courtroom duels continue over what documents Gableman will see and who he will interview. Democratic Atty. Gen. Josh Kaul has sued, seeking to have the Assembly investigation shut down.

But Gableman at some point will give Republicans who control the Assembly a report that he will insist documents mismanagement by both some local clerks and the Elections Commission. The Assembly will respond by passing new rules for the 2020 elections — changes likely to go beyond those Democratic Gov. Tony Evers has already vetoed.

Three top Senate leaders – Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, President Chris Kapenga and Asst. Majority Leader Dan Feyen – said the Audit Bureau report documented Elections Commission failures “which undermined the free, fair, and transparent elections Wisconsinites deserve,” prompting a Senate investigation.

“When a state agency refuses to follow the law, especially one overseeing our elections, it should concern every Wisconsinite – regardless of [their] party,” added LeMahieu. “We will assess the full impact of WEC’s deficiencies.”

Five Republicans — Vos, Kapenga, Republicans Senators Patrick Testin and Duey Stroebel and Rep. Dave Murphy — also last week called on Elections Commission Administrator Meagan Wolfe to resign, citing a Racine County sheriff’s report questioning how votes were cast in a nursing home. Elections Commissioners said they ordered that special voting deputies not enter the home because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Senate Republicans are also targeting Madison election officials who balked at their requests to review election documents.

The Senate and Assembly investigations will be separate, although both houses are run by Republicans.

What’s likely one year from now?

Republicans legislators will have passed new election laws and changes to Elections Commission procedures. The Commission struggles because of how Republicans structured its oversight board five years ago: three Republicans and three Democrats.

Evers will again veto GOP-passed bills, saying they would disenfranchise voting rights. He will repeat what he told a New York Times reporter: “I would’ve never guessed that my job as governor, when I ran a couple years ago, was going to be mainly about making sure that our democracy is still intact in this state.”

But what about the 18 legislative changes in elections laws recommended by the nonpartisan Audit Bureau? In the brutal pre-election partisan landscape, will any of them become law?

Steven Walters began covering the Capitol in 1988. Contact him at

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2 thoughts on “The State of Politics: Senate Targets Elections Commission”

  1. JMcD says:

    There is an organized and relentless effort to creat doubt about all elections. There is an organized and relentless effort well underway to not only suppress voting, but to create mechanisms to overturn elections. Democrats, grow a pair and bring the fight to stop this. Get organized, be relentless. A slow moving coup is still a coup.

  2. Mingus says:

    Why isn’t the Senate investigating the fools from their party who got played by Foxconn and cost the State a billion dollars!

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