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‘A real conflagration’: Wisconsin emerges as front line in war over the 2020 vote

Election workers sort through ballots during a recount of Milwaukee County’s results at the Wisconsin Center on Nov. 20, 2020. (Taylor Glascock/For the Washington Post)

One of the investigators reexamining the 2020 election results in Wisconsin on behalf of the GOP-led state legislature is the president of a group that unsuccessfully sued to overturn the vote.

Another worked as a deputy in the White House Presidential Personnel Office, which was known for weeding out people perceived as disloyal to President Donald Trump.

A third is an Arkansas lawyer who represented Trump’s campaign during last year’s Wisconsin recount, a process that confirmed President Biden won the key swing state by roughly 20,700 votes.

All are being paid with Wisconsin taxpayer money as part of a legislative-backed investigation into the 2020 results headed by a former state Supreme Court justice that has picked up steam in recent weeks. The inquiry, the latest gambit by Republicans to reexamine the 2020 election nationally, makes little pretense of neutrality and is being led by figures who have shown allegiance to Trump or embraced false claims of fraud.

The former president personally lobbied state lawmakers to pursue the Wisconsin investigation and spurred on other ballot reviews around the country, leaning on legislators to revisit the vote more than a year after Americans went to the polls.

In Wisconsin, a state that is likely to see some of the nation’s most competitive races in 2022 for governor and U.S. Senate, there are now multiple efforts underway to scrutinize how the last election was run, including a recommendation by a county sheriff to prosecute and jail state election officials.

“What we’re seeing in Wisconsin is a whole bunch of little brush fires, each one of which could be dismissed as minor, unconcerning or maybe even absurdly comical,” said Jeffrey Mandell, an expert in Wisconsin election law and attorney for the Democratic mayor of Green Bay, who is fighting a subpoena from the legislative inquiry. “My concern is there are enough brush fires that they could feed into each other and form a real conflagration.”

The danger, he said, is that the same players could challenge the outcome of a closely contested midterm election — potentially with control of the U.S. Senate in the balance — and that the institutions designed to certify the results will have been dismantled or disempowered.

“It would be a crisis,” Mandell said. “People haven’t been paying attention because there are bigger fires elsewhere. But there aren’t more fires anywhere.”

'It is a threat'

Election experts say Wisconsin has now lapped Arizona — where a Republican-commissioned election review drove national headlines for months — as the leading front line in the war over the legitimacy of the 2020 election.

Earlier this fall, the Racine County sheriff recommended that five of the six members of the bipartisan Wisconsin Elections Commission be criminally charged over rules they adopted last year — after hours of debate at public meetings — about how to handle absentee balloting at nursing homes during the coronavirus pandemic.

Separately, a GOP state representative has introduced a resolution calling for members of the state elections commission and the nonpartisan state administrator of elections to resign, or else face efforts to remove them from office and criminally investigate their activities. Another Republican representative has introduced a measure to decertify Biden’s 2020 win — a move that drew both public praise and private encouragement from Trump, according to aides to the former president, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the conversations.

Meanwhile, former state Supreme Court justice Michael Gableman, head of the legislative investigation, recently asked a judge to order a county sheriff to jail the elected Democratic mayors of Green Bay and Madison until they comply with subpoenas seeking interviews for his probe.

The mayors, who say the investigation is hurting faith in the state’s fair elections, have said they are willing to testify publicly to state lawmakers but believe Gableman has exceeded his authority by demanding private testimony. The issue is being litigated in Wisconsin courts.

“It’s both laughable and horrifying at the same time,” said Satya Rhodes-Conway, the mayor of Madison, one of the mayors targeted with the request. “We don’t think there’s any legal basis to this threat, but it is a threat. I think it’s designed specifically to try to intimidate.”

On Monday, Wisconsin state Sen. Kathy Bernier (R), who chairs the Senate’s elections committee, urged Gableman to quickly conclude his investigation, calling the “constant drumbeat” of fraud accusations “a charade.”

“There’s a simple explanation for almost every single thing that people accuse election officials of doing,” said Bernier, who previously served as a county clerk.

She said she feared Gableman is ginning up voter anger based on falsehoods.

“Mr. Gableman is coming to my county, and I will attend that meeting along with my concealed carry permit, to be perfectly honest. Because it keeps jazzing up the people who think they know what they’re talking about — and they don’t,” she said at a panel discussion at the Wisconsin Capitol.

Gableman did not respond to requests for comment. He has said publicly that he’s not trying to overturn the election and believes no legal mechanism exists to return Trump to office.

During testimony to a legislative committee earlier this month that occasionally turned combative, Gableman said he will ultimately be judged only on his team’s final product, which he said has been delayed by uncooperative local officials.

No substantive evidence has emerged of problems in the vote in Wisconsin, and multiple past reviews have confirmed Biden’s narrow win there.

A recount of the ballots in Wisconsin’s two most Democratic-leaning jurisdictions requested by Trump last year failed to alter the outcome. State and federal judges also rejected challenges to the state’s vote.

In addition, two lengthy reports produced in recent months examining the conduct of the Wisconsin vote both recommended changes to rules over absentee balloting and other practices, but found no support for theories that the election was stolen.

In particular, a 10-month review by the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty released last week found there was “no evidence of widespread voter fraud.” It concluded that “in all likelihood, more eligible voters cast ballots for Joe Biden than Donald Trump.” And it debunked specific myths spread by Trump and his allies, including that Biden won the state after a suspicious late-night “ballot dump” in Milwaukee and that voting machines were manipulated to flip votes from Trump to Biden.

Aides for Trump said he has been following the Wisconsin process with interest, including conferring with Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R) and other members of the state legislature. Trump’s aides have warned him Gableman’s effort is unlikely to result in a finding that he should be returned to office and have urged him to instead view the process as a way to influence the future of the state’s election laws.

Hogan Gidley, a former White House and Trump campaign spokesman, has been meeting with civic, business and political leaders in Wisconsin on behalf of a group he started called the Center for Election Integrity to devise proposed changes to how voter ID laws and how voter registration rolls are maintained, Gidley said.

Vos and other state lawmakers also say they hope to use Gableman’s final report to guide new legislation.

On Tuesday, the Assembly speaker told the Associated Press that Gableman’s probe will take longer and cost more than he originally predicted, blaming uncooperative Democrats.

“My goal always was to conclude the investigation by the end of the year,” Vos said. “I never in my wildest dreams predicted the level that Democrats would go to try to block and throw up roadblocks to everything that we’re doing.”

A sweeping review

Gableman, who served on the state Supreme Court for a decade, was hired by the Republican-led Assembly in August and authorized to spend as much as $680,000 on his review of the election.

He has said his investigation will take any steps necessary to review all aspects of how the 2020 election was administered.

His appointment came as Trump was urging states to revisit the 2020 vote and publicly complained Wisconsin was not going far enough. During an Aug. 23 flight on his private plane in August, the former president pressed Vos to do more, as The Washington Post previously reported.

Documents obtained through public records acquired by the watchdog group American Oversight revealed that Gableman is running his investigation out of a Wisconsin strip mall office space that is shared through a subleasing agreement with the Thomas More Society, a legal nonprofit that had ties to Trump’s legal team and was involved with lawsuits last year seeking to overturn the election.

Gableman told the Assembly that the arrangement will save taxpayers money.

Documents also show that as his probe got underway, the former justice traveled to Arizona to learn about its GOP-run election investigation, as well as to South Dakota to attend an election symposium hosted by Trump ally and MyPillow chief executive Mike Lindell, who has spent millions of dollars promoting false claims of voting fraud.

Last month, Gableman participated in a conference call organized by conservative activists who speak regularly to strategize about “election integrity” efforts nationally, according to two people familiar with the call who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the private discussion.

During the discussion, Gableman complained about criticism of his efforts and Democratic resistance to his inquiries and asked for support for his investigation, according to the people.

The call was organized by Cleta Mitchell, a lawyer who assisted Trump’s campaign and participated in a January call in which Trump urged Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find” votes necessary for him to win the state.

Mitchell declined to comment, saying in a text message that she doesn’t “speak to callers from leftwing fringe outlets.”

In November, Gableman produced an “interim report” of his findings that he posted to his team’s website — wifraud.com — that began by declaring that it is “beyond debate that questions remain about the integrity” of the 2020 election.

During his Dec. 1 presentation to the state legislature, he told lawmakers that he believed election officials in Wisconsin may have committed wrongdoing, in part because of their resistance to his subpoenas.

Gableman claimed their defiance showed that the two Democratic mayors, the six-member bipartisan commission and the state’s election administrator are engaged in a “coverup” intended to “run and hide from accountability to the citizens they are supposed to serve.” Democratic officials, he said, have “no interest in exposing themselves or each others’ wrongdoing to public accountability.”

Ann Jacobs, the Democratic chairwoman of the elections commission, has said the state’s election was fairly administered and accused Republican legislators — who created the bipartisan commission five years ago — of now wishing to abolish the panel to make it easier to control election outcomes.

“This isn’t about election administration — this is about a way to ignore the popular vote and install their candidate,” she wrote on Twitter earlier this month.

For a time, Gableman declined to publicly identify the investigators and lawyers he hired to assist his effort. Emails released by local officials showed that members of his team emailed county clerks using addresses that identified them only by a number — such as “3” or “6.”

But after Wisconsin news organizations successfully identified several of his aides, and judges ordered internal emails and spending records to be released in response to public records requests, Gableman this month provided details about nine of the 10 people he said he has hired. (He said he wished to keep one name “confidential.”)

They include Ron Heuer, the president of the nonprofit Wisconsin Voter Alliance, which last year pursued several lawsuits challenging the election. One filed in late December asked a federal judge to block Congress from confirming Biden’s win on Jan. 6.

In rejecting the request, the judge wrote that it would be “risible were its target not so grave: the undermining of a democratic election for President of the United States.” He then referred the lawyer handling the case for possible grievance hearings and disbarment, a move the lawyer has appealed.

Asked by a state representative during the recent hearing about Heuer’s hiring — at a rate of $3,250 a month — Gableman called him a “fine and honorable man” whose organization, he said, had done important work in obtaining public records about how the election was run.

Another member of Gableman’s team is Andrew Kloster, a lawyer who served in the White House Presidential Personnel Office during a key stretch at the end of Trump’s administration when the office worked to hire Trump loyalists to the government.

In April, Kloster wrote an online column about Wisconsin’s election that began: “Right off the bat, let me say this: the 2020 presidential election was stolen, fair and square.”

He argued American elections have long been rigged by those with power and said of Republicans: “We need our own army of local bureaucrats. And we need to fight for our locales. We need our own irate hooligans (incidentally, this is why the left and our national security apparatus hates the Proud Boys) and our own captured DA offices to let our boys off the hook.”

Gableman has said a third member of his team is Clint Lancaster, an Arkansas lawyer and local GOP official who represented Trump during the Wisconsin recount, according to his resume, which was submitted to Gableman and posted online by American Oversight.

Lancaster also represented an Arkansas woman who sued Biden’s son Hunter, alleging that he fathered her child. Hunter Biden agreed to pay child support, settling the politically embarrassing case not long before the 2020 election.

Lancaster declined to comment. Kloster and Heuer did not respond to requests for comment.

'We did not break the law'

Gableman has said his team has an open-door policy to hear complaints of possible problems with the election, and that the focus on his staff is an attempt to distract from legitimate concerns about the vote.

In particular, Gableman has said he is investigating whether private grants that were accepted by Wisconsin’s cities to help run the election and improve turnout were an illegal scheme that helped boost turnout for Biden. The grants came from the Center for Tech and Civic Life, funded by $300 million donated by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan.

“Reasonable minds might wonder whether the millions of dollars each of these mayors received from the Zuckerbergs may have induced them to do something other than treat all candidates fairly and impartially and whether those mayors used the Zuckerberg money to get out the vote for Joe Biden,” Gableman told state Assembly members, without citing evidence of any wrongdoing.

The center has said that it provided grants on a nonpartisan basis to nearly 2,500 jurisdictions around the country that requested funding, including 215 Wisconsin communities. A federal judge last year ruled that the grants did not violate the law, and the bipartisan Wisconsin Elections Commission last week dismissed complaints arguing the grants violated state statutes.

Gableman has also focused on the issue that drew the attention of the sheriff in Racine — allegations that a loosening of absentee balloting rules at nursing homes during the pandemic resulted in older voters being taken advantage of in casting their votes.

Wisconsin has special voting rules for people confined to nursing homes that require specially trained assistants to visit residents and help them cast their ballots. Normally, absentee ballots are issued to nursing home residents only if the trained officials try to visit a facility twice but are unable to meet with the residents.

At a public meeting, the six members of the election commission — three from each party — unanimously voted to skip that requirement before Wisconsin’s April 2020 primary election, given that many homes were closed to visitors because of the pandemic. Five members of the commission agreed to continue the practice for the November general election.

No lawsuit was filed challenging the nursing home balloting before the election. But at a late October 2021 news conference, Racine County Sheriff Christopher Schmaling said he had received a complaint from a woman who said she believes that as a result of the commission’s decision, her mother might have cast a ballot that was improperly influenced by nursing home staff.

Arguing the commission’s guidance violated Wisconsin law, the sheriff formally recommended that the county’s district attorney charge the five commissioners who voted for the procedure before the November election with election fraud and misconduct in public office, both felonies, along with three misdemeanors.

(He did not announce a similar recommendation for any person he accused of improperly manipulating specific ballots, including the vote cast by the woman’s mother. Schmaling said he did not think nursing home workers were to blame because they were not trained to assist with voting.)

Racine County District Attorney Patricia Hanson, an elected Republican, did not respond to a request for comment about whether she plans to accept his recommendation and press charges.

In a statement, Jacobs said: “To put it simply, we did not break the law.” She said that the commission had taken appropriate steps to ensure residents in care facilities had not been disenfranchised amid the extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic.

Scott McDonell, the clerk of Wisconsin’s Dane County, said such threats of criminal charges are “deeply disturbing and chilling” for election professionals at every level. Even if no charges are ultimately filed, he said the mere fact that a law enforcement official is pushing for officials to be prosecuted for how they ran the 2020 election is a win for Trump and his supporters.

“You can say, ‘There was no election fraud and the election was the most safe and secure in the history of the country,’” he said. “And they will say, ‘Well, what about Racine?’ ”

Robert O’Harrow Jr., Jacqueline Alemany and Michael Laris contributed to this report.

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