Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

About Those Election ‘Irregularities’

Is there any truth to Republican complaints about the 2020 election?

By - Nov 3rd, 2021 10:48 am
Returned ballots for the November 2020 election. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Returned ballots for the November 2020 election. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

While Wisconsin elections have always been clean, there was a time when there was at least a small opening for voter fraud. That was two decades ago, back when the disastrous Florida election, with its famous hanging chads, shone a spotlight on problems in some state systems.   

The result was 2002 bipartisan federal law – Help America Vote – that funded improvements in each state’s database for voters. Until then, Wisconsin’s highly localized system had no statewide database and no way to cross-check all voters. “We couldn’t do a match of records to check if, say, a felon was voting,” as Kevin Kennedy, longtime executive director of elections in Wisconsin, once told me. 

But in 2006, he noted, “We merged all voting records from 300 some local databases. Now, I can look up all people registered, whether in Clam Lake or Milwaukee.”

As a result, Kennedy noted, “If any person does double vote, they will be caught in our system.” 

The first presidential election to test this in Wisconsin was 2008 and just two people statewide were caught double voting. In the years since then the Government Accountability Board (which was disbanded in 2016), and its successor in handling elections, the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC), have never found much voter fraud. The WEC’s most recent report, in June 2021, found just 13 instances of suspected fraud in the November 2020 election — out of nearly 3.3 million votes cast. 

Going back to 2016 the WEC found just 41 instances of voter fraud. And most of those involved felons illegally voting (they cannot vote until they are off probation and/or parole), often because they misunderstood the law. 

Politicians in both parties understand how clean Wisconsin’s elections are. That’s why Republican Scott Walker predicted that Donald Trump’s call for a recount of the Wisconsin election, which Joe Biden won by 20,000 votes, had no chance of being overturned. That’s why Assembly Speaker Robin Vos admitted soon after the election that Biden won. The claim of a stolen election was a Big Lie, as it’s rightly been called. 

But Vos and other Republicans continue to harp on the idea that many voters lack confidence in the elections and believed there were problems. That’s hardly surprising after allegations of voter fraud by Trump going back some five years and by many of his followers since the 2020 election. 

Vos and others have talked about “irregularities” in the 2020 election, with a clear intent to sow doubt about the system. They point to the Madison Democracy in the Parks event where absentee ballots were collected by sworn deputy clerks. But these were ballots issued to registered voters and if they weren’t eligible voters, the state’s centralized system would detect this. Though Republican gubernatorial candidate Rebecca Kleefisch has called this “ballot harvesting,” it is not prohibited by law and the Republicans have offered no evidence these were not eligible voters. 

Republicans have also complained about individuals who may have falsely claimed they were incapacitated and thus voted absentee. But no one has shown they were ineligible voters. In essence, these issues raised by Republicans amount to complaining that we are making it too easy for eligible people to vote. 

“There were no irregularities in Wisconsin’s 2020 election,” says Debra Cronmiller of the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, who has served on the group’s board for 20 years. “Despite the pandemic the election brought out a record number of voters, with no evidence of illegal voting.” 

To keep stoking the issue, Republican legislators called for an audit of the election by the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau. The report found that “four individuals may have voted twice,” absentee votes by “eleven individual who died before November 3” were probably counted, and “eight individuals with ongoing felony sentences may have voted.”

That’s 23 votes out of a total of 3,241,050 — or 0.0007%.

“This audit showed us that the election was largely safe and secure,” tweeted Republican state Sen. Robert Cowles, who co-chairs the Legislature’s Audit Committee.

“The report did indicate some improvements in the system that can be made,” Cronmiller notes. “We made a number of similar recommendations,” she says of the LWV. “But these do not point out any irregularities, but are part of a continuously improving system.” 

In the latest attack on the state’s elections, Racine County Sheriff Christopher Schmaling charged that eight residents with cognitive issues had been “victimized” because workers at Ridgewood Care Center in Mount Pleasant had filled out absentee ballots on their behalf. He suggested the workers put pressure on residents and failed to take security measures when storing ballots.

If this is true, the workers broke the law, and Schmaling should charge them. But he hasn’t. Instead he has used this as a way to attack the Wisconsin Elections Commission. Vos quickly jumped aboard this issue and called for executive director Meagan Wolfe to resign. 

And then an interesting thing happened. Republican Dean Knudson, who was appointed to the WEC by Vos himself, defended Wolfe, as Patrick Marley reported. “Meagan Wolfe has, under difficult circumstances, tried her best to be neutral, nonpartisan, to steer the agency in that direction in unparalleled circumstances,” Knudson said. “I think she’s done a good job of ensuring our elections are fair and accurate.”

Wolfe was unanimously approved by the state Senate to her position. And she serves a six-person board with three Republicans and three Democrats, so she has to be scrupulously within the law or either half of the board will attack her.

The reality is that Wolfe is not going to be dismissed. A majority of the election commission board could ask her to step down, but they support her. That’s why Wolfe felt safe condemning Vos and other Republicans who criticized her, calling it “partisan politics at its worst.”

Wolfe could also be impeached, but state law requires a bipartisan group of legislators to call for an impeachment hearing, and there’s no chance Democrats will do this. Vos gave the game away by calling for Wolfe to resign, signaling that he has no power to require this. “It’s really important that no matter who people voted for in 2020, that they have faith in the final results of the election,” Vos said. But how can they when Vos and other Republicans keep up this drumbeat of unproven election irregularities?  

If the elections commission is so bad why hasn’t Vos asked his appointee Knudson to step down from the board? Knudson offered a simple explanation for why Republicans continue these false claims. “Certain public figures in Wisconsin,” he noted, “are under intense pressure to find someone to be the fall guy for Trump’s loss in 2020 in Wisconsin.”

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