Wisconsin elections agency wants money to bolster confidence

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin’s bipartisan elections agency, which has been under fire from Republicans since Donald Trump’s loss in 2020, voted unanimously Wednesday to ask the GOP-controlled Legislature to create a new division designed to increase confidence in election results in the face of ongoing conspiracy theories and false claims of widespread fraud.

The Wisconsin Elections Commission approved the proposal at its Wednesday meeting to seek $1.3 million to hire 10 people and create an Elections Inspector General office.

“This office would not be about dwelling in the past or giving credence to claims that threaten the credibility of Wisconsin’s accurate and secure elections,” said Meagan Wolfe, the commission’s administrator and top elections official in Wisconsin.

The commission has been at the heart of many complaints lodged by Trump, Republican lawmakers and others related to guidance it gave local election officials for the 2020 election. The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that absentee ballot drop boxes are illegal even though the commission issued guidance allowing them, and there are ongoing legal fights over who can legally return an absentee ballot and whether election clerks can fill in missing information on envelopes that contain absentee ballots.

President Joe Biden defeated Trump by nearly 21,000 votes in Wisconsin, an outcome that has withstood two partial recounts, a nonpartisan audit, a conservative law firm’s review and numerous state and federal lawsuits. Even a Republican-ordered review that drew bipartisan criticism did not turn up evidence of wrongdoing that would change the outcome of the election before the investigator was fired.

However, Republicans have continued to push for changes in how elections are administered in Wisconsin. In the face of that criticism, the commission was proposing creating the new office to increase confidence in elections and bolster the agency’s ability to more quickly research inquiries from the public and lawmakers, especially those alleging illegal behavior.

The agency said that since 2016, the average number of public records requests received by the commission has increased from two per month to more than 16 per month. The number of complaints has also skyrocketed, Wolfe said. They were 15 a year before 2020, but this year, the commission is on pace to receive more than 100, she said

“Public engagement and scrutiny of election administration is higher than at any other point in the commission’s seven-year history,” Wolfe said.

Creating the office to better handle those requests “would be one clear and decisive step toward creating a more effective, efficient agency that will better address citizen concerns and requests and thus increase public confidence in our elections,” the agency said in materials prepared for the meeting.

The proposed office would also include a legislative liaison and a communications specialist whose job it would be to convey the office’s findings to lawmakers and the public, the agency said.

Don Millis, the Republican chair of the elections commission, supported the new office, saying it would increase the integrity of and confidence in elections. The election inspector general would be hired by the commission administrator and report to that person.

Despite the commission’s vote of approval Wednesday, creating the new office faces major hurdles. It would have to be approved by the Legislature, which includes many Republicans who want to dissolve the commission entirely, and then be signed into law by the next governor. Those votes would not happen until the summer of 2023.

Republican state Sen. Howard Marklein, co-chair of the Legislature’s budget committee that would vote on creating the new office, had no comment on the proposal. State Rep. Mark Born, the other co-chair, did not comment on whether he would support the idea, saying it was “in the very early stages of the budget process.”

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers supports the commission, which the Republican-controlled Legislature created. But his Republican challenger Tim Michels, who is endorsed by Trump and has left open the possibility of trying to decertify his 2020 loss, wants to create a new commission.

Michels did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment. Evers didn’t commit to support the idea, but his spokesperson Britt Cudaback said the governor would review it and that he welcomed efforts to combat misinformation, bolster election security and ensure every eligible voter can cast their ballot.

Cudaback said the proposal was made necessary because of Republicans and their allies who “intentionally legitimized disinformation about our elections, attacked the personal and professional integrity of poll workers, clerks, and election administrators, and enabled the harassment of dedicated public servants.”

Copyright © 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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