Is Wisconsin the ultimate test of trust in voting?

Morry Gash/AP/File
The Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison is shown on Dec. 31, 2020. Gerrymandering has helped Republicans maintain a grip on the Legislature, even when Democrats win the popular vote.

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In the birthplace of the Republican Party, its heirs are grappling with a brewing clash – one playing out in legislative chambers and courtrooms, on social media and talk radio. It centers on an existential facet of democracy: Who controls how elections are run – and what happens when citizens lose trust in the legitimacy of the vote?

The issue has been rankling states, driven by the ongoing assertions of former President Donald Trump and his allies – despite all evidence to the contrary – that the 2020 election was stolen. And perhaps nowhere has it been as contentious as in Wisconsin.

Why We Wrote This

Wisconsin could become the country’s premier petri dish for what happens when citizens lose trust – for valid reasons or not – in the legitimacy of a democracy’s most fundamental act, voting.

A decade of bitter partisan combat here has shrunk the political center, to the point where neither side trusts the other to play fair. Even among Republicans who dismiss Mr. Trump’s false claims of fraud, suspicions linger that Democrats took advantage of electoral rules under pandemic conditions to boost turnout for Joe Biden. 

Mr. Trump and his allies are also pushing changes to the state’s electoral system. Some Republicans are trying to purge or eliminate the bipartisan Wisconsin Election Commission, saying it can no longer be trusted. A Republican sheriff even launched a criminal complaint against members of the commission.

How did Wisconsin go down this perilous path? And where will it go from here – and will other states follow?

On a wintry night in 1854, a small band of citizens gathered in a one-room schoolhouse in Ripon, Wisconsin, to address a looming crisis for their young democracy. Meeting by candlelight, they agreed to form a new political party aimed at stopping the spread of slavery, uniting a fractious coalition of Whigs, Free-Soilers, and anti-slavery Democrats around the urgent effort to keep slavery out of the territories of Kansas and Nebraska.

Alvan Bovay, the lawyer who called the meeting, named the party res publica, or Republican. It would become the dominant anti-slavery party in subsequent years of tumult, which culminated in a bloody Civil War under a Republican president, Abraham Lincoln. 

Today, Mr. Bovay’s political heirs are grappling with another brewing clash – one that may prove as consequential for the union as the struggles of the 1850s. It’s playing out in legislative chambers and courtrooms, on social media and talk radio, and it centers on an existential facet of democracy: Who controls how elections are run – and what happens when citizens lose trust in the legitimacy of the vote?

Why We Wrote This

Wisconsin could become the country’s premier petri dish for what happens when citizens lose trust – for valid reasons or not – in the legitimacy of a democracy’s most fundamental act, voting.

The issue has been rankling states across the nation, driven by the ongoing assertions of former President Donald Trump and his allies – despite all evidence to the contrary – that the 2020 election was stolen. And perhaps nowhere has it been as contentious as in Wisconsin, a pivotal swing state that Mr. Trump lost to Joe Biden by just under 21,000 votes, after winning by nearly 23,000 four years earlier.

Simon Montlake/The Christian Science Monitor
This former schoolhouse in Ripon, Wisconsin, shown on Dec. 9, 2021, is known as the birthplace of the Republican Party after a meeting was held there in 1854 to form a new anti-slavery political party. The schoolhouse is now a private museum.

A decade of bitter partisan combat here has shrunk the political center, to the point where neither side trusts the other to play fair. Even among Republicans who dismiss Mr. Trump’s false claims of fraud, suspicions linger that Democrats took advantage of electoral rules under pandemic conditions to boost turnout for Mr. Biden. 

Mr. Trump and his allies are also pushing changes to the state’s electoral system in advance of a possible rematch in 2024. Some Republicans are trying to purge or eliminate the bipartisan Wisconsin Election Commission (WEC) that oversees and certifies elections, saying it can no longer be trusted. A Republican sheriff even launched a criminal complaint against members of the commission. 

U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, a staunch Trump supporter whose seat is up in November, has gone so far as to call on the State Legislature to invoke its constitutional role to run federal elections.

A Republican on the election commission says his party is simply taking steps to shore up a faulty system and restore trust. Multiple polls have shown that a sizable majority of Republican voters believe the 2020 vote was stolen. In an October poll for NPR/PBS NewsHour, only a third said they would trust the result of the 2024 election, regardless of which candidate won. 

“When you have 50% of the people of Wisconsin thinking that something was wrong with an election, that’s not good,” says Commissioner Robert Spindell. “These questions have to be somehow answered.” 

But critics of partisan “audits” like the one happening in Wisconsin say that, far from settling concerns about fraud, they tend to further amplify disinformation, sapping faith in public institutions and priming voters to reject future results. 

“This whole enterprise of the [Wisconsin] investigation is built on an outright lie, which is that there were irregularities,” says Kenneth Mayer, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. “The people who are promoting this investigation are promoting a lie.”

Andy Manis/AP/File
Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers addresses a joint session of the Legislature at the State Capitol in Madison on Jan. 22, 2019. A group formed to support former President Donald Trump's agenda is working with Wisconsin Republicans on a ballot measure that would bypass Governor Evers, a Democrat, to change how elections are run in the battleground state.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, who is up for reelection in November, has denounced the attacks on the WEC and vetoed several election-related bills passed by Republicans. But Democrats worry that if the GOP takes back the governorship this year, while retaining its hold on the Legislature, it will gain unilateral control over how Wisconsin’s elections are run and certified going forward.

Ann Jacobs, the Democratic chair of the WEC, envisions a potential scenario in which Wisconsin’s 10 presidential electors could be awarded to the losing candidate – as Mr. Trump urged state lawmakers to do on the eve of the Jan. 6 invasion of the U.S. Capitol.  

“There aren’t two sides to this,” she says. “Either we have an election in which all the votes are counted and the people who get the most votes win. Or we have to stop pretending that we’re interested in democracy.” 

How did Wisconsin go down this perilous path? And where will it go from here – and will other states follow? 

Rick Wood/ Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/Rapport/Newscom/File
Ann Jacobs, then a volunteer attorney with Election Protection, a nonpartisan voting rights group, talks with an observer outside a polling place in Milwaukee on Nov. 4, 2008. Currently the Democratic chair of the bipartisan Wisconsin Election Commission, Ms. Jacobs worries about a future scenario in which the losing presidential candidate could be awarded Wisconsin's 10 electoral votes.

A state of contradictory impulses

Wisconsin has always seemed an uneasy marriage of contradictory political impulses. A birthplace of both the Republican Party and progressivism, the state has a long history of government-backed social protections as well as a conservative belief in personal and family responsibility. In recent years, it has grown more sharply polarized: Its rural counties, dotted with dairy farms and an aging, mostly white population, have shifted right, while Milwaukee and fast-growing Madison have moved further left.

Wisconsin’s highly gerrymandered districts, engineered in 2011 by Republicans under then-Gov. Scott Walker, have boosted the GOP’s grip on the Legislature, even when Democrats win popular majorities – a partisan advantage that discourages compromise and persuasion.

The state’s dichotomous politics can be clearly seen in its two current U.S. senators. Democrat Tammy Baldwin, who in 2013 became the Senate’s first openly LGBTQ member, has a consistently liberal voting record on everything from health care to the environment. Her colleague, Senator Johnson, is an outspoken conservative who campaigned on a promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act and has recently drawn criticism for downplaying the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol and questioning the safety of COVID-19 vaccines. He has yet to announce whether he’s running for reelection.

As in many states, Wisconsin’s elections are decentralized acts of democracy: Clerks in 1,850 municipalities, many of whom work part time, register voters and send out ballots. In 2020, election officials had to cope with a pandemic that led to a surge in voting by mail; some precincts added drop boxes where people could deliver their mail-in ballots so they could vote more safely.

What happened was all out in the open – citizens could watch every step, from local ballot counting to county-level canvassing, says Meagan Wolfe, the WEC’s nonpartisan administrator.

“There are no dark corners. There are no locked doors,” she says. “Every single piece of an election is transparent.” 

Ms. Wolfe reports to a board made up of three Republicans and three Democrats. This bipartisan formula was created by Republican legislators in 2016 to replace an independent agency that ran afoul of then GOP Governor Walker after its ethics division investigated his campaign finances. 

During the 2020 campaign, the WEC struggled at times to reach consensus on how to interpret election law under pandemic conditions – such as what to do about closed polling places. After Mr. Trump lost, his allies accused the WEC of issuing illegal guidelines that favored Mr. Biden.

So far, a total of 31 individual cases of potential fraud have been referred to prosecutors in Wisconsin. Of those, just five were actually charged, according to an Associated Press report in December. One involved a man who voted for Mr. Trump despite being ineligible because he was on parole. The other cases were dropped after review. 

Actual cases of fraud are extremely rare in Wisconsin’s elections, says Kevin Kennedy, the state’s former election chief for 34 years. But then came a president who said he could only lose reelection if the results were rigged.

“It’s always been hard to cheat,” he says. “But if you keep saying there’s a lot of fraud and a lot of cheating going on, and you throw these shibboleths at unelected bureaucrats who run elections, it’s going to gain traction.”

Daniel Acker/Reuters/File
Voters fill out ballots at Riverside University High School during the presidential primary election in Milwaukee on April 7, 2020. The Wisconsin Election Commission struggled at times to reach consensus on how to interpret election law under pandemic conditions.

“It’s that simple”

A light snowfall powders the stubbled fields on the road to Waupun, a town one hour northwest of Milwaukee. Inside a brick-fronted cafe warmed by an open fire, Rohn Bishop, a lifelong Republican and a regular here, bounds up to the counter. “Hello ma’am, how are you today?” he says to a server.

Mr. Bishop, who manages the auto detailing shop at a local dealership, is a fixture of public life in Waupun. Currently running for mayor, he’s been chairman of the Republican Party for the past four years in Fond du Lac County, which includes Ripon – making it the party’s oldest branch in the nation, “since 1854,” as its letterhead states. 

In 2020, he knocked on doors and handed out yard signs and did all he could to support the Trump ticket. On election night, he gathered with his team at a local radio station to watch the results come in. At one point, his data analyst called him over: Ozaukee County, a GOP stronghold outside Milwaukee, hadn’t shown up for Mr. Trump, which spelled trouble for the candidate’s reelection bid. 

By 4 a.m., he had seen enough to know the race was probably lost, and he drove home. Three days later, Pennsylvania was called for Mr. Biden, and the Democrat declared victory. 

“That’s when I started to break with the GOP,” says Mr. Bishop. 

The Trump campaign challenged the Wisconsin results in court and demanded recounts in two counties. Neither recount found any anomalies, and the state Supreme Court rejected a lawsuit to disqualify more than 200,000 absentee ballots in Democratic strongholds. 

Mr. Bishop saw no evidence of mass fraud. By the logic of the Trump lawsuit, he notes, his own ballot, cast in advance, would have been illegal since he hadn’t requested it in writing. “We didn’t win,” he says over a chicken panini. “It’s that simple.”

Among fellow Republicans, however, that view was heresy. Mr. Bishop was pilloried on social media and received angry emails and voicemails, including one from a GOP activist who called him a traitor to the conservative movement and vowed never to speak to him again. 

“This is a guy I drove home from a baseball game because it was raining,” says Mr. Bishop. “I’m dead to him because of Donald Trump.” 

The backlash intensified after Jan. 6, when Mr. Bishop criticized GOP lawmakers in Congress for their part in the insurrection. By February, though, he figured the anger was subsiding. That month, he was reelected as county chairman, unopposed. And while Republican lawmakers in Wisconsin were still challenging the election results, they had asked a respected state audit board to conduct a review. 

Yet Mr. Trump kept calling for a “forensic audit,” accusing Assembly Speaker Robin Vos of “working hard to cover up election corruption,” and warning he could face a primary challenge. 

Eventually, Mr. Vos bowed to the pressure. At the state GOP convention in June, he introduced former state Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman, who would be tasked with investigating election irregularities. Mr. Gableman told the party faithful he was up to the challenge. 

“Whatever part of the political spectrum you fall on, nobody, nobody should disagree with the idea that honest, open, fair, transparent elections ought to be what takes place,” he said. “Because if we don’t have that, we have nothing.”

Suspicions and threats

The Grand Army of the Republic Memorial Hall is on the fourth floor of Wisconsin’s imposing State Capitol in Madison. Beneath a vaulted ornamental ceiling, five lawmakers sit at a bench facing a mostly empty hearing room. State Rep. Janel Brandtjen, who chairs the election committee, chats with a fellow GOP lawmaker who was out shoveling snow before dawn. Four Republicans sit on the right side. A lone Democrat, the only member wearing a mask, sits on the left.  

“Today, the committee is going to hold an informational hearing on the voter rolls,” Representative Brandtjen announces on a frosty December afternoon. 

What follows is 2 1/2 hours of speculative claims and insinuations about Wisconsin’s election system. One of the invited speakers is a retired mathematician named Douglas Frank, whose debunked charges of algorithmic ballot rigging in Michigan have been amplified by Mr. Trump.

Another speaker, a software engineer named Jeff O’Donnell, zeros in on thousands of Wisconsin voters whose dates of birth are listed as 1900 and who registered to vote in 1918. This is just one of many “highly suspicious issues” in the rolls, says Mr. O’Donnell, who is appearing via Zoom. 

On its website, the WEC explains that birth dates of Jan. 1, 1900, were entered by default when more than 200 local registries were merged into a statewide database. Since the voting age is 18, the default registration was Jan. 1, 1918. Clerks have since updated most of these entries.  

Mr. Gableman, the former justice appointed as special counsel, isn’t at today’s hearing. But his own investigation has surfaced similar conspiracy theories and put Trump associates on the payroll. He has threatened to jail uncooperative Democratic mayors and seized on allegations that fraudulent absentee ballots were cast by nursing-home residents.

Racine County Sheriff Christopher Schmaling, a Republican, has called for five WEC commissioners to be charged with felonies because they stopped sending poll workers to nursing homes to assist with voting during the pandemic. The commissioners have said many facilities were closed to outside visitors and absentee voting was a viable alternative. Sheriff Schmaling alleges that residents were inappropriately influenced by nursing-home staff.

Speaker Vos, who represents Racine County, has said the commissioners, including a Republican he appointed to the WEC, should “probably” face charges, though it’s up to a district attorney to make that decision. (None has filed charges so far.)

“We’ve crossed a line that’s hard to walk back from,” says state Rep. Mark Spreitzer, a Democrat on the election committee, referring to the threat of prosecution. “It’s beyond the pale.” 

Morry Gash/AP/File
Voters wait in line to vote in Wisconsin's primary election in Milwaukee on April 7, 2020. Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat up for reelection in November 2022, has denounced attacks on the Wisconsin Election Commission and vetoed several election-related bills passed by Republicans.

“We need to move on”

Kathleen Bernier, a Republican who chairs the State Senate’s election committee, contends the 2020 election in Wisconsin was hardly perfect. Election officials interpreted laws too broadly, she says, and Democrats were too quick to dismiss irregularities that merited investigation. 

But Senator Bernier, a former county clerk who is vice chair of the GOP caucus in Madison, has also grown impatient with fact-free accusations of fraud made by her colleagues. “There’s the fringe that seems to think that there was an organized attempt to falsify ballots,” she says. “There is no evidence of that whatsoever.” 

She wants Mr. Gableman to wrap up his investigation into an election that, she says, was won fairly by Mr. Biden.

“We need to move on. Donald Trump is not going to be reinstated,” she says.

Yet that seems unlikely to persuade voters like Jefferson Davis, a financial consultant and former president of Menomonee Falls village outside Milwaukee.

Mr. Davis is part of a coalition of conservative groups that’s been calling for a full “physical and cyber audit” of the 2020 election. He says his group has uncovered evidence of massive fraud and accuses the political establishment in Wisconsin, including GOP lawmakers, of suppressing the facts. 

The irregularities, he claims, include not just improperly cast nursing-home ballots but also get-out-the-vote efforts in Democratic cities that, he charges, led to tens of thousands of “phantom votes.” 

Mr. Davis wants state legislators to decertify the 2020 election – despite there being no legal process for decertifying an election once a president is sworn in. And he warns that voters won’t trust future elections run under Wisconsin’s current system.

“This is the biggest fraud in the history of the state of Wisconsin,” he says. “If we don’t get this right, elections will never make a difference ever again.”

Some Republican strategists warn that fraud rhetoric could depress GOP turnout, as was the case in the 2021 U.S. Senate runoffs in Georgia, both of which were won by Democrats. But it may also prove a potent motivator that, coupled with political head winds for Democrats nationally, flips the governor’s mansion in 2022. Rebecca Kleefisch, the GOP front-runner, has already sued the WEC over its administration of the 2020 election. 

A Republican caucus with more pro-Trump members would then be in position to determine how Wisconsin elections are run and who gets to certify the results. That caucus may not include Senator Bernier: Her local party censored her, and she faces a primary challenger because of her views on the election.

A prominent GOP lawmaker recently announced a run for secretary of state, a mostly powerless job held by an octogenarian Democrat. Amy Loudenbeck said she wanted to expand the secretary’s role to “serve as a check” on the WEC and ensure “election integrity.” In 37 states, elections are run by elected or appointed secretaries of state. 

A makeover of the office under Ms. Loudenbeck to override the bipartisan WEC could be controversial, says Tim Cullen, a Democrat and former state senator. “There’s going to be a backlash from voters. But the backlash may not matter much if they’re able to do it.” 

Still, he says, Republicans would probably settle for passing laws to restrict ballot access if they win the gubernatorial race. So far there seems little support in the Legislature for the nuclear option prescribed by Senator Johnson of unilateral control of federal elections. Ms. Wolfe, the nonpartisan WEC administrator, remains in her job, as do the commissioners. In October, the state audit board made multiple recommendations for the WEC to improve the electoral system and for lawmakers to update the rules, but found no evidence of fraud. 

John Hart//Wisconsin State Journal/AP/File
Wisconsin state Sen. Kathleen Bernier, a Republican, listens in the Assembly chambers of the Capitol in Madison on Feb. 16, 2016. Senator Bernier contends the 2020 election in Wisconsin was hardly perfect, but she has also grown impatient with her colleagues' fact-free accusations of fraud.

“I think we’ll come out of this just fine,” says Senator Bernier. “I think at some point everybody will accept the results.”  

That still leaves Wisconsin as a national battleground with a red-blue gulf made worse by gerrymandered seats, with 10 presidential electors who will be fiercely contested next time.

Back in Waupun, Mr. Bishop is focused on his upcoming mayoral race in April. The position is part time and nonpartisan, part of the fabric of local self-government that many in Wisconsin take pride in. He remains a self-identified proud Republican, but notably asked a local Democratic activist to introduce him at a recent campaign kickoff. Mr. Bishop still gets flak from Trump loyalists, he says. But he takes heart in the many quieter expressions of support.

“There are more Republicans out there who agree with me than you realize,” he says.

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