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Impeachment articles against Wisconsin elections official riddled with false and misleading claims

Voters wait in line Nov. 3, 2020, Election Day, outside a polling center in Kenosha, Wis. (AP) Voters wait in line Nov. 3, 2020, Election Day, outside a polling center in Kenosha, Wis. (AP)

Voters wait in line Nov. 3, 2020, Election Day, outside a polling center in Kenosha, Wis. (AP)

By Tyler Katzenberger October 5, 2023

Impeachment articles drafted by five Republican lawmakers seeking to remove Wisconsin Elections Commission Administrator Meagan Wolfe from her job contain more than a dozen misleading and false statements that misrepresent Wolfe’s role and regurgitate election disinformation.

The impeachment resolution, put forward last month by Republican Reps. Janel Brandtjen of Menomonee Falls, Scott Allen of Waukesha, Elijah Behnke of Oconto, Ty Bodden of Hilbert and Chuck Wichgers of Muskego, claims Wolfe was directly responsible for decisions made by elections commissioners and falsely ties her to debunked election lies.

All 15 impeachment articles contain misleading or false claims about how elections administration works in Wisconsin.

The five Republicans who put forth the impeachment resolution did not respond to a detailed request for comment asking them to explain their claims.

Here are the main points of contention:

Wolfe carries out WEC policy but does not make it

The GOP lawmakers base at least five of their impeachment articles on decisions made by the bipartisan panel of six elections commissioners who oversee the WEC and Wolfe.

As WEC administrator, Wolfe is the nonpartisan leader of the state's elections agency. Wolfe for years has become a target of those who harbor intense distrust of election officials amid a baseless campaign by former President Donald Trump to sow doubt in the legitimacy of his 2020 election loss.

The Republicans in their impeachment resolution blamed Wolfe for actions commissioners voted to take during the COVID-19 pandemic — a time when health officials were advising people to avoid crowds. Some actions the commissioners took in 2020 were legally unchallenged but have since been deemed illegal.

However, Wolfe in her position is bound by law to execute duties based on commissioners’ decisions. She cannot vote on the decisions.

"She's not the election cop," said Ann Jacobs, one of six election commissioners. "Only the commission can issue orders."

This misunderstanding undermines accusations of "maladministration" the Republican lawmakers made against Wolfe in multiple impeachment articles.

In Article 4, the GOP lawmakers claim Wolfe wrongly "advocated" for ballot drop boxes during the 2020 election, a practice deemed illegal in a July 2022 Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling that applied to elections going forward. The lawmakers also claimed drop boxes were "unfamiliar" in Wisconsin.

But ballot drop boxes were used in Wisconsin for years without raising major concerns from Republicans until Donald Trump lost the 2020 election in Wisconsin.

And claims that Wolfe "advocated" for drop boxes misinterpret what Wolfe communicated in an August 2020 memo to clerks.

The August memo was not an endorsement of the use of ballot drop boxes but instead was designed to provide best practice recommendations based on information from a resource developed by the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and other experts on elections infrastructure, WEC spokesman Riley Vetterkind wrote in an email Friday.

The WEC continues to abide by the court's July ruling on drop boxes, Vetterkind added.

In Article 5, the lawmakers blamed Wolfe for allowing absentee voting ballots to be sent to long-term care facilities without the use of special voting deputies in the 2020 presidential election. 

Again, Wolfe did not make this decision but instead followed guidance from commissioners that advised clerks to ignore a state law that required special voting deputies make two attempts to visit facilities and provide assistance before sending residents absentee ballots. 

All six commissioners — three Democrats and three Republicans — voted to mail absentee ballots to long-term care facilities in March 2020.

Commissioners said they advised mailing absentee ballots to the facilities to protect a population vulnerable to COVID and ensure the ballots got to the voters in enough time to cast them because most facilities were barring visitors at the time.

The GOP lawmakers again misconstrued Wolfe’s role in Article 8, which accuses Wolfe of allowing unauthorized officials, like friends or family, to return another voter’s absentee ballots during the 2020 presidential election. 

The practice has since been deemed illegal by the state Supreme Court in July, save for cases in which disabled voters need assistance to return their ballot. But the practice — which was authorized by elections commissioners, not Wolfe — was legally unchallenged in 2020.

And in Article 15, the lawmakers accuse Wolfe of promoting a common federal voter registration form that was ruled illegal by a Waukesha County Circuit Court judge in early September. This is despite the fact that the elections commissioners, not Wolfe, permitted its use until the form was deemed illegal.

Commissioners voted days after the court ruling to suspend the form’s use until further notice. The form had been in use in Wisconsin since 1994, according to Vetterkind.

Election lies from 2020 underpin multiple claims

Multiple other impeachment articles against Wolfe rely on baseless claims of voter fraud in the 2020 election.

Take article one, in which GOP lawmakers accuse Wolfe of illegally directing clerks to correct witness addresses on absentee ballots. This claim is misleading, USA Today fact-checkers and the WEC determined in 2020.

Clerks corrected missing witness information, including addresses, in 11 statewide elections before the November 2020 election. The practice was established in October 2016 when elections commissioners from both parties (and not Wolfe) unanimously voted to advise clerks they could fix missing witness information components based on "reliable information," such as filling in a ZIP code for an incomplete address.

A 2016 memo shows commissioners made their decision based on guidance from the Wisconsin Department of Justice. Brad Schimel, a Republican, led the department at that time.

The practice was not legally challenged until a Waukesha County judge barred election clerks from filling in witness information on absentee ballot envelopes in a September 2022 ruling. A national liberal law firm announced a legal challenge to the ruling Monday.

The GOP lawmakers also make a misleading claim in Article 2 about the number of people registered to vote in Wisconsin, a number they claimed in their second impeachment article totals more than 7 million. For reference, Wisconsin's state population was 5.9 million in the 2020 census.

While technically correct, the lawmakers added more than 3.5 million inactive voters — people who are dead, move to another state or are in any other way deemed ineligible to vote — to the number of active voters to reach an inaccurate and misleading figure.

Wisconsin law requires WEC to maintain an active and inactive voter list.

And contrary to what the lawmakers claim in Article 14, state law bars inactive voters from voting in Wisconsin elections unless they reregister and provide proof of in-state residence. 

Furthermore, neither the WEC nor Wolfe is responsible for removing voters who may have moved from the rolls, as the lawmakers claim in Article 13. State law assigns that responsibility to local elections officials, the state Supreme Court ruled in 2021, and anyone who may have moved must affirm their address before receiving a ballot.

The WEC’s most recent voter registration data from Sept. 1 found Wisconsin had approximately 3.5 million active registered voters.

The GOP lawmakers again misinterpret elections infrastructure in article two while discussing Wisconsin’s membership with the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC), a private nonprofit that helps states maintain accurate voter rolls.

The organization comprises 25 states and has become a target of Republicans since former President Donald Trump called on GOP-led states to withdraw from ERIC. At least eight states have withdrawn from the compact since 2022.

Wisconsin has been an ERIC member since the Republican-controlled Legislature voted to join the compact in 2016 as part of a law that created online voter registration in the state. 

Contrary to the lawmakers’ claims in Article 2, Wolfe does not have the power nor the responsibility to remove Wisconsin from ERIC. That power lies with the Republican-controlled Legislature. 

Republicans introduced a bill last month that would withdraw Wisconsin from ERIC.

False interpretation of ‘Zuckerberg Five’ cities

The five GOP lawmakers in their seventh impeachment article attempt to tie Wolfe to local municipalities’ decision to accept private grants ahead of the 2020 election — a decision state and federal judges on multiple occasions deemed legal.

The money, which totaled more than $10 million, came from the Center of Tech and Civic Life, funded by Meta founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife to help conduct the presidential election during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Most of the funds were directed to Wisconsin’s five largest cities — Milwaukee, Madison, Green Bay, Kenosha and Racine, where Democratic voters are concentrated. Notably, local municipal governments voted to accept the funding, not the WEC.

Republicans have tried but failed on nearly a half-dozen occasions to claim local clerks’ decisions to accept private grants and outside consultants for state elections administration was illegal.

The GOP lawmakers also falsely claimed in Article 12 that Wolfe illegally allowed clerks to recommend absentee ballot instructions in Spanish with resources from the Center of Tech and Civic Life. 

But state law assigns the duty to provide ballots to county clerks, who craft ballots in "substantially" the same form based on WEC-approved templates. There is no state law or court decision on the books that bans providing the same information prepared by the WEC in an alternate language.

What’s more, at least three dozen Wisconsin communities are required by federal law to provide ballots in a second language as well as in the English language in localities with concentrated minority groups under the National Voting Rights Act of 1993

Hispanic voters are listed as such a group in at least six of these communities, including Milwaukee.

In another reference to the Zuckerberg group, the Republican lawmakers claimed in Article 11 that Wolfe purposefully omitted information about its grants from a September 2020 report about Wisconsin’s preparedness for the 2020 presidential elections.

However, that report covered "how the State of Wisconsin Elections Commission" prepared for the presidential election, not how individual local clerks prepared. And the grants were issued to local clerks, not the WEC.

Misleading interpretations of engineered elections fraud cases

At least three of the 15 impeachment articles against Wolfe rely on misleading interpretations of high-profile election fraud cases in Wisconsin.

The lawmakers in their third and sixth impeachment articles cite an incident in which Kim Zapata, a former Milwaukee elections official, fraudulently requested absentee ballots reserved for members of the military and sent them to Brandtjen, a Republican lawmaker known for embracing conspiracy theories about the 2020 election. 

The lawmakers claimed Zapata’s ability to request the ballots was evidence of Wolfe’s maladministration. But Zapata, 45, was able to do so only because she was an elections official who had a government-owned device and access to a non-public voter database. 

She was later caught, fired and charged with felony misconduct in public office and three misdemeanor counts of making a false statement to obtain an absentee ballot.

The lawmakers also accused Wolfe in Articles 3 and 6 of failing to maintain a reference database for military and nonmilitary overseas voters. However, municipal clerks record military and nonmilitary overseas voters in the Commission’s Statewide Voter Registration System, known as WisVote. It is their responsibility (not Wolfe’s) to adhere to instructions to record such data, Vetterkind said.

The Republicans in their ninth impeachment article reference a similar case involving Harry Wait, a Racine County man who was charged with election fraud for illegally requesting absentee ballots to prove election fraud is possible.

Wait used an online tool to obtain ballots for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Racine Mayor Cory Mason. He freely spoke about the crime and contacted Racine County Sheriff Christopher Schmaling about his actions in an attempt to show violations of the law are possible. 

The webpage Wait used to fraudulently request ballots, known as MyVote, is the public-facing end of WisVote, the statewide voter registration system required by Wisconsin law.

MyVote requires people to provide the same information as they would provide if their ballot request was made through physical mail or email, and requesting another person’s ballot is a criminal offense that is enforced and charged. 

Jacobs said it’s possible to fraudulently request ballots but that there are multiple ways to catch people who do so, including looking at the computer used to request the ballot and the address the ballot is sent to.

"I can also walk out of Walmart with a TV, (but) it's a stupid thing to do," Jacobs said. "Chances are, I'll be caught and I'll be prosecuted."

False interpretation of Racine mobile voting dispute

The GOP lawmakers pursuing impeachment against Wolfe in impeachment Article 10 accuse her of mismanaging a dispute over a mobile voting van in Racine. 

This claim is misleading and requires context.

Racine elections officials deployed the mobile voting van to multiple sites in the city during the February and August 2022 elections. 

The WEC in September 2022 found there was "probable cause" that the mobile voting van violated provisions in the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Help America Vote Act. The City of Racine in the September 2022 decision was ordered to cease use of the mobile voting van until it was updated to meet accessibility standards. But contrary to what the lawmakers claimed, Wolfe did not have the power to issue an order banning the van’s use before the WEC filed its decision. Wolfe communicated the commission’s decision once it was reached Sept. 30, after the February and August 2022 elections.

The lawmakers also claimed the van was used for "partisan purposes."

WEC decided in favor of Racine Clerk Tara McMenamin and rejected the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty's complaint Nov. 4, finding there was no probable cause to believe partisan bias or a legal violation occurred. Commissioners threw out two related complaints on Dec. 9. 

McMenamin previously said any perception of bias stemmed from a poor understanding of the city's wards, which traditionally lean Democratic.

Tyler Katzenberger's reporting is supported by the Poynter and Google News Initiative Misinformation Student Fellowship Program.


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Impeachment articles against Wisconsin elections official riddled with false and misleading claims