Wisconsin Elections Official Targeted in Partisan Clash Over Voting


Republicans in Wisconsin pushing to oust the state’s nonpartisan head of elections clashed on Tuesday with voting rights advocates and some local clerks during a rancorous public hearing in Madison, sowing further distrust about voting integrity.

With their new supermajority in the State Senate, Republicans fought over the reappointment of Meagan Wolfe as the Wisconsin Elections Commission administrator.

The agency’s head since 2018, Ms. Wolfe has become a steady target of right-wing attacks, fueled by former President Donald J. Trump’s grievances about his defeat in the battleground state in 2020. Many of them hinge on his falsehoods about election fraud and the use of electronic voting machines and ballot drop boxes.

Ms. Wolfe did not attend the hearing, where a stream of critics told a Senate election oversight committee that she should be ousted. Among them was Michael J. Gableman, a conservative former Wisconsin Supreme Court justice whom Republicans tasked with leading a 14-month investigation into the 2020 election results in the state. The review, which cost taxpayers $1.1 million, found no evidence of significant fraud.

“A majority of people in Wisconsin have doubts about the honesty of elections in this state,” he said at the hearing. “That’s disgraceful.”

On Tuesday, Ms. Wolfe declined to comment through a spokesman for the elections commission, who shared a copy of a letter that she sent to legislators in June that had sought to dispel election misinformation.

“I believe it is fair to say that no election in Wisconsin history has been as scrutinized, reviewed, investigated and reinvestigated as much as the November 2020 general election,” her letter said. “The outcome of all those 2020 probes produced essentially the same results: the identification of a relatively small number of suggestions for procedural improvements, with no findings of wrongdoing or significant fraud.”

Meagan Wolfe, the administrator, did not attend the hearing, where a stream of critics told a Senate election oversight committee that she should be removed.Credit…Ruthie Hauge/Wisconsin State Journal, via Associated Press

At the hearing, Ms. Wolfe’s supporters described her as a model of competency who guided a network of state, county and local election officials through the pandemic and has done so in an impartial manner. They warned that her removal would result in chaos.

“Considering what happened after the 2020 elections and since, we are in a world of crazy for next year,” said Lisa Tollefson, the clerk of Rock County, in the southern part of the state. “With the actions and accusations that have been made toward election officials, we are certainly seeing the highest turnover in county clerks and municipal clerks in our history.”

Dan Knodl, a Republican who is the chairman of the Senate committee, challenged her “world of crazy” remark.

“Are you predicting something, or you have information that something is on the horizon?” he said.

Ms. Tollefson answered that the political climate was only likely to intensify in Wisconsin and pointed to the hard-fought election in April that flipped Wisconsin’s Supreme Court from conservative to liberal.

Several times during Tuesday’s hearing, Democrats argued that the Legislature did not have the authority to vote on Ms. Wolfe’s reappointment, noting that state law requires her renomination to come from the commission.

A June vote by the commission on whether to appoint her to another four-year term ended in an impasse, with three Democrats abstaining over concerns that Republicans would use their supermajority in the Senate to remove her. By doing nothing — declining to renominate or take any other action — the commission can effectively keep Ms. Wolfe in her current role under state law.

Republicans have challenged the statute, and the issue is expected to end up being decided by the courts.

Ann S. Jacobs, a Democratic commissioner, referred to the move by G.O.P. lawmakers to oust Ms. Wolfe as a “circus.”

Mr. Knodl bristled at her language and said he was not about to abdicate oversight.

“Whether it’s circuslike or not, that’s what we’ll do,” he said. “Thank you for attending the circus.”

Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause in Wisconsin, a government watchdog group, said Ms. Wolfe’s removal would be a major blow to the state, which is likely to once again be a crucial battleground for the presidential race.

“The vast majority of Wisconsin’s voters and citizens can and will lose confidence and trust in our elections,” he said.

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