The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Wisconsin election review ramps up as former judge issues subpoenas to officials

The Wisconsin Capitol is seen in Madison. The Republican Assembly speaker initiated a review of the 2020 election, despite multiple court rulings finding no proof of fraud. (Todd Richmond/AP)

A former Wisconsin Supreme Court justice issued subpoenas Friday for documents related to the 2020 election, advancing a partisan ballot review sought by former president Donald Trump in a state he lost by 20,682 votes.

Michael Gableman, the former judge leading the effort, sent subpoenas to election officials in Green Bay, Milwaukee, Madison and Racine. Copies of subpoenas reviewed by The Washington Post request “all documents” pertaining to the November 2020 vote and ordering officials to testify at a hearing on Oct. 15. The hearing will focus in part on “potential irregularities and/or illegalities related to the Election,” according to copies of the subpoenas reviewed by The Post.

The subpoenas noted that failure to comply could trigger punishment, including imprisonment. The cover letters also contained several errors, including misspellings of the last name of Green Bay’s city clerk and in a Latin phrase indicating recipients will be required to produce documents. A letter to Jim Owczarski, the city clerk of Milwaukee, who is not responsible for elections, also asked for documents related to the 2020 election in Green Bay, not Milwaukee.

“I don’t know why they keep getting this wrong,” Owczarski said in an interview, describing the subpoena as “wide of the mark” since his office does not oversee elections in either city.

“I have called them and explained this to them respectfully and said, ‘I’ll be anywhere you tell me to be’ — that’s me by nature — ‘but I can’t give you anything you want,'" he said.

Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R) announced over the summer that Gableman would lead an investigation into the 2020 election despite multiple court rulings finding no evidence of the former president’s claims of fraud. Last month, a partisan audit in Arizona confirmed Biden’s victory there, after taking months longer than planned.

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Gableman, a former state Republican Party official, has come under fire for using an unsecure private email account to send instructions to county clerks about preserving evidence related to the 2020 election. He also caused a furor when he suggested in a video posted on YouTube that the burden fell to election clerks to prove that the election was not tainted. He has been given a budget of $680,000 in taxpayer funds to conduct his probe.

The subpoenas were first reported by In addition to Owczarski, they were received Friday by Celestine Jeffreys, city clerk of Green Bay; the Milwaukee Election Commission, which is led by executive director Claire Woodall-Vogg; Madison City Clerk Maribeth Witzel-Behl; Tara Coolidge, Racine’s city clerk; and a staffer in the office of Racine Mayor Cory Mason. Woodall-Vogg confirmed her office had received one but declined to comment further.

It was unclear whether other cities or entities had also received the requests. Inquiries with officials in Kenosha, Wis., were not immediately answered. And Jim Witecha, staff attorney for the Wisconsin Elections Commission, said the commission had also not received a subpoena as of midafternoon.

Gableman did not respond to an inquiry from The Post. A spokeswoman for Vos, who signed the subpoenas, did not respond when asked how many were issued.

“Ensuring the 2020 election was conducted fairly and legally is critically important to maintaining faith in our election system,” Vos said in a statement Friday. “Justice Gableman is dedicated to finding the truth and has determined subpoenas are necessary to move forward in his investigation. Assembly Republicans will continue to work with Justice Gableman to ensure confidence is fully restored in our elections.”

The subpoenas require election officials to turn over “all documents contained in your files and/or in your custody, possession, or control, pertaining to the Election” — a tremendous number in three of the state’s largest cities. Specific requests included election administrators’ communications with leaders, experts and entities outside their offices, including the Center for Tech and Civic Life, a nonprofit backed by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan. The group helped distribute millions of dollars last year to support election administration during the coronavirus pandemic and has become a target for right-wing critics.

In an interview, Jeffreys said many of the requested documents are already available through her office’s website. She said she would be conferring with legal counsel about how to respond.

“We here in the city — we follow the law, and that also pertains to the subpoena,” she said, adding: “We have to make a determination as to our response. All of that will be within the boundaries of the law.”

Assembly Democratic Caucus Chair Mark Spreitzer denounced the subpoenas, saying in a statement: “It is now clear that Speaker Vos is using every power available to him to placate far-right extremism.”