The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Calls intensify to end Wisconsin’s election review amid blunders by ex-judge in charge

Former Wisconsin Supreme Court justice Michael Gableman, right, has faced bipartisan blowback over his handling of an investigation into the 2020 election in the state. (Jessica Reilly/AP)

The glaring errors became clear soon after a former Wisconsin judge issued subpoenas earlier this month in a Republican review of the state’s 2020 presidential election. Some of the requests referred to the wrong city. At least one was sent to an official who doesn’t oversee elections. A Latin phrase included in the demands for records and testimony was misspelled.

Michael Gableman, the former judge leading the review, admitted days later that he does not have “a comprehensive understanding or even any understanding of how elections work.” He then backed off some of his subpoena demands before reversing course again, telling a local radio host that officials would still be required to testify.

The latest round of reversals and blunders is intensifying calls to end the probe, one of several recent efforts around the country to revisit Joe Biden’s win in states where former president Donald Trump and his supporters have leveled baseless accusations of voter fraud.

Attorney General Josh Kaul (D) this week called the subpoenas unlawful and “dramatically overbroad,” and he urged Republicans to “shut this fake investigation down.” Voting rights advocates, election policy experts and some state and local officials, meanwhile, accuse Gableman of incompetence and say his review — which could cost taxpayers $680,000 or more — will decrease public trust in Wisconsin elections.

“It’s terrible for democracy in the state,” Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway (D) said in an interview. “It’s corrosive. It undermines confidence in our elections, and it’s deeply insulting to our municipal clerks and poll workers. … The thing that should give everybody some confidence is the fact that our elections are not being run by people like attorney Gableman.”

While some critics have mocked the constant stream of missteps, Gableman’s approach comes with a real cost to democracy, experts said.

“I do think it’s harmful,” Barry C. Burden, director of the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, said of the review. “It’s obviously amateurish and uncoordinated and irresponsible and open-ended and partisan. The people who are leading the effort have already decided they think the election was fraudulent, or they’re distrustful of the outcome. It’s a violation of all the standards you’d use in a usual election audit or review the state might do.”

Gableman, a former state Republican Party official, suggested in November that the election might have been stolen, even as multiple court rulings and local recounts went on to affirm Trump’s loss in Wisconsin by just under 21,000 votes. His office did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday. In a video posted over the weekend, he doubled down on claims that election laws were “not properly followed” by state and local officials but did not provide further detail. He has said the goal of his review is not to overturn Biden’s win in the state.

As the first anniversary of the 2020 election approaches, a number of similar ballot reviews are still underway or have just recently ended.

A Republican-commissioned probe in Arizona confirmed the accuracy of Biden’s win in Maricopa County after a costly and drawn-out process widely criticized by election experts as sloppy and biased. State officials in Texas have launched a review of the election results in four of the state’s largest counties. Republican lawmakers in Pennsylvania approved subpoenas last month for a wide variety of data and personal information on voters, triggering a lawsuit from Democratic Attorney General Josh Shapiro. And in Michigan this week, conservative activists rallied at Trump’s behest to demand an investigation into Biden’s victory there.

“If we don’t solve the Presidential Election Fraud of 2020,” Trump said in a statement Wednesday urging further reviews of his debunked claims, “Republicans will not be voting in ’22 or ’24. It is the single most important things for Republicans to do.”

Gableman’s review is one of several ongoing probes of the 2020 election in Wisconsin. Chosen by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R) over the summer, he previously traveled to Arizona to learn about its review and attended a conference held by Mike Lindell, the MyPillow chief executive and Trump supporter who has claimed without evidence that China hacked the election.

The review had problems from the start. Two initial employees quit. Gableman’s team used an unsecure private email account under another name to send instructions to county clerks about preserving evidence, leading some messages to be marked as “junk” or flagged as risky. The former judge also drew criticism after suggesting in a video posted to YouTube that the burden was on election officials to prove the election was not tainted by fraud.

Gableman is consulting with Shiva Ayyadurai, who has accused Massachusetts election officials of committing fraud in the U.S. Senate primary he lost last year, and Andrew Kloster, a former Trump White House attorney who has also claimed the presidential election was stolen.

Problems with the review intensified Oct. 1 as Gableman began to issue subpoenas for in-person testimony and “all documents” pertaining to the November 2020 vote from mayors and other officials in Wisconsin’s five largest counties, as well as some state officials. The letters were rife with errors, including misspelling the name of at least one official.

Gableman requested that the officials come to Brookfield, Wis., to testify at rented office space. The following week, he admitted his ignorance about how elections are run.

“No one can call elections laws common sense,” he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “Once you understand them, it may be common sense, but it’s not intuitive. And so most people, myself included, do not have a comprehensive understanding or even any understanding of how elections work.”

Gableman then backed off the subpoenas he had just issued, saying officials did not need to appear in person for interviews and could provide copies of records they had already made available under Wisconsin’s open records law. But on Friday, Gableman offered more contradictory statements when he said he was still seeking in-person testimony from officials.

Local officials expressed frustration with the mixed messages and lack of clarity.

“Our attorneys have been back and forth with their team trying to understand what they want, because their request was so incredibly broad,” Rhodes-Conway said. “Every time we communicate with them, it seems to change.”

Matthew Weil, director of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Elections Project, said Gableman and his team seem to lack the expertise needed to properly interpret and contextualize the documents they gather.

“It doesn’t seem like they have any rules or know what they’re doing,” he said. “I don’t think they’re going to do anything to improve confidence in the process.”

At a news conference this week, Kaul criticized Gableman’s plan to interview officials privately. He said the review is “not a serious investigation” and “suffers from glaring flaws that destroy any credibility that its results could have.”

“It is continuing to fan the flames of the 'big lie’ and it is falsely undermining confidence in our elections,” he said.

Asked for comment, a spokeswoman for Vos pointed to a statement the speaker issued earlier in the week in which he said Gableman’s subpoenas were “issued correctly” based on a memo prepared by the nonpartisan Legislative Council.

Yet not all Wisconsin Republicans think they go far enough. State Rep. Janel Brandtjen, the chair of the Assembly’s Campaigns and Elections Committee, who is running her own review of the vote, called on Gableman to take a more aggressive approach.

“A cyber forensic audit, including the recounting of physical ballots and an audit of the machines, would finally rebuild trust in Wisconsin elections,” Brandtjen said in a statement.

Gableman’s rhetoric has become increasingly harsh as his review receives more media scrutiny.

In an interview Friday with conservative radio host Dan O’Donnell, Gableman compared the Journal Sentinel’s reporting to the work of Nazi Germany’s minister of propaganda, saying the paper’s coverage “would make Joseph Goebbels blush.” The comment prompted a call for Gableman’s removal by state Rep. Lisa Subeck (D), who is Jewish and called the comparison “clearly antisemitic.”

After O’Donnell suggested a comparison with Pravda, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, would be more appropriate, Gableman said he retracted his reference to Goebbels.

Both Burden and Rhodes-Conway called the review “doomed” in terms of its credibility.

“I think the only thing he can do that would be helpful is to admit that this was a wrongheaded exercise, that he was the wrong person to do this, that he went in with beliefs about the election not being trustworthy, that he violated all of the standards of normal election reviews,” Burden said. “I don’t see how it’s salvaged other than to simply scrap it and admit it was the wrong way to go.”

Weil said he hoped that partisan reviews in Arizona, Wisconsin and other states would increase support for legitimate election audits run with transparency by experts.

“There are absolutely avenues to strengthen election laws and procedures, and we should be doing that, but promising some sort of cyber-forensic audit that has no goals, being led by people who don’t understand elections, isn’t the way to get there,” he said.