The Wisconsin Democratic Party is raising legal challenges against the state’s Republicans after the latter voted on Thursday to dismiss the ostensibly nonpartisan top election official in the critical purple state.
Wisconsin elections administrator Meagan Wolfe faced termination by the Republican-majority state Senate, a move that could significantly impact the administration of elections in 2024. However, the state’s Democratic Party argues that this move is illegitimate.
“Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul said in a lawsuit that Senate Republicans don’t have the authority to oust Wisconsin Elections Commission Administrator Meagan Wolfe and accused them of attacking the state’s elections,” Kaul said.
Wisconsin’s political landscape has been marked by intense partisan divisions. Republicans in control of the Legislature have even considered impeaching a newly elected Supreme Court justice before she has presided over a case. Additionally, there are discussions about revising the state’s electoral maps before the high court can reject the current boundaries that benefit the Republican Party.
Persistent disputes surrounding the 2020 election have fueled the debate over the leadership of the elections agency. This uncertainty poses challenges for the state’s 1,800+ local clerks responsible for conducting elections. Wolfe’s role has been scrutinized by election skeptics who allege she played a part in manipulating the 2020 vote in Wisconsin. Republican leaders, referencing these skeptics, justified their decision with a 22-11 vote along party lines.
“Wisconsinites have expressed concerns with the administration of elections both here in Wisconsin and nationally,” Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu said. “We need to rebuild faith in Wisconsin’s elections.”
The 2020 election saw Biden triumph over Trump by almost 21,000 votes in Wisconsin. This result has been upheld by two partial recounts, a nonpartisan audit, a review by a conservative law firm and multiple state and federal lawsuits. Some election observers have raised concerns that replacing Wolfe with a less seasoned administrator or continuing to challenge her position before the 2024 race could lead to greater instability during a crucial presidential race. This is especially concerning given the anticipated pressure, harassment, and threats election workers are expected to face.
“Wisconsin Republicans’ attempt to illegally fire Wisconsin’s elections administrator without cause today shows they are continuing to escalate efforts to sow distrust and disinformation about our elections, denigrate our clerks, poll workers, and election administrators, and undermine basic tenets of our democracy, including the peaceful transfer of power,” Democratic Gov. Tony Evers said.
Following Evers’ directive, Kaul initiated legal action against Republican legislative leaders. He sought a judicial ruling to declare the Senate’s vote as having no legal effect, ensuring Wolfe’s continued leadership of the elections commission.
Republicans, on the other hand, proposed a resolution urging the elections commission to designate an interim administrator as Wolfe’s replacement.
“The state Senate has blatantly ignored Wisconsin law in order to put its stamp of approval on baseless attacks against elections,” Kaul said. “(Wolfe) remains the administrator. The court, I’m very confident, will confirm that.”
The bipartisan elections commission reached a stalemate in June regarding Wolfe’s nomination for a second four-year term. Three Republicans voted in favor of her nomination, while three Democrats abstained, hoping to prevent the nomination from advancing to the Senate for confirmation.
Senate Republicans, however, proceeded with the vote in June, even without a nomination from the commission. LeMahieu perceived the commission’s 3-0 vote as a unanimous nomination. This interpretation has been challenged by both the Legislature’s nonpartisan attorneys and Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul. They argue that the law explicitly states that an elections administrator must receive nominations from at least four commissioners.
Wolfe chose not to attend a Senate committee hearing on her reappointment the previous month. She cited a letter from Kaul, which asserted that she undoubtedly remains the head of the elections agency. This hearing became a stage for some of Wisconsin’s most vocal critics of the elections to reiterate their claims about the 2020 election.
Many of these skeptics were present in the Senate gallery and celebrated when the vote was approved.
A significant portion of the Republican grievances against Wolfe pertains to decisions made by the elections commission, which Wolfe executed. Wolfe, who took over the leadership of the elections commission in 2018, succeeded Michael Haas. Senate Republicans had previously rejected Haas due to his association with the Government Accountability Board.
The Republican disbanded this agency, the predecessor to the elections commission, in 2015. This decision followed an investigation into whether former Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign had illicit collaborations with external groups. Post the 2020 election, some Republicans have contemplated either abolishing or restructuring the elections commission.
Wolfe’s tenure at the elections commission and the accountability board spans over a decade. She has held prestigious positions such as the president of the National Association of State Election Directors and chair of the bipartisan Electronic Registration Information Center, or ERIC, which assists states in maintaining accurate voter rolls.
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