Following significant spikes in formal complaints and requests for information following the 2020 election, the Wisconsin Elections Commission will seek $1.3 million in state funds to create an office designed to promote accuracy and confidence in election results.
The bipartisan commission voted unanimously on Wednesday to request the funds in the 2023-25 state budget, which will be considered next year by the Republican-led Legislature and the winner of November’s gubernatorial election.
The funds would create an elections inspector general program and hire 10 additional staffers, in order to “increase the agency’s ability to research public or legislative inquiries — especially those alleging unlawful or non-compliant behavior — in a more timely and effective manner,” according to a proposal from WEC Administrator Meagan Wolfe and agency staff.
“We know that it's a big ask, and we don't make this ask lightly. But we believe that action is required and changes are needed if we are to keep pace with the increasing expectations of Wisconsin citizens when it comes to administering elections,” Wolfe told the commission.
The election landscape in Wisconsin is “nearly unrecognizable” from when WEC was created in 2016, Wolfe said.
“The profile, prominence and importance of Wisconsin's election administration has changed drastically, and the public engagement and scrutiny of election administration is higher than at any other point in the commission's seven year history,” she said.
According to data shared with commissioners, the average number of public records requests WEC receives has gone from two per month in 2016 to more than 16 per month in 2022. Without additional staff to process them, Wolfe said, backlogs build up and result in delays. The number of requests for information from state lawmakers has also increased, she said.
The agency has also seen a dramatic increase in formal complaints. Before 2020, it received an average of 15 complaints per year. Since 2020, the annual average has increased to more than 50, and Wolfe said the agency is on track to process more than 100 this year.
The proposal to create an inspector general office is designed “to ensure our staff can continue to meet the rising public need for information which will build confidence in our election system among all Wisconsinites,” Wolfe said, adding that it “would not be about dwelling in the past or giving credence to claims that threaten the credibility of Wisconsin's accurate and secure elections.”
The office would be led by an inspector general, who would report to the agency’s administrator (currently Wolfe). Other proposed staff include analysts specializing in election administration, accessibility, information systems, legislative relationships, communication and public records.
Regardless of whether it’s included in the 2023-25 budget document or introduced as standalone legislation, the proposal will ultimately require approval from lawmakers and the governor — and depending on electoral outcomes, WEC could face significant overhauls.
Some Republicans — not, however, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos or Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu — have called for eliminating the agency entirely, despite GOP lawmakers having created it within the last decade.
“I'm going to get rid of the Wisconsin Elections Commission,” said Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Michels during a rally earlier this month with former President Donald Trump.
Michels has talked about creating a “WEC 2.0,” with members from each of the state’s congressional districts.
State Rep. Amy Loudenbeck, the Republican candidate for secretary of state, has framed her platform around shifting more electoral responsibilities to the office.
“The fact the Wisconsin Elections Commission is even considering spending more than a million dollars in taxpayer money to set up an agency within an agency to be a check on its own responsibilities is just another painful reminder of why WEC as currently structured does not work,” Loudenbeck said in a statement after the vote.
Loudenbeck said she will advocate for “a new model to replace WEC.”
Democratic Gov. Tony Evers has vetoed a variety of GOP bills that proposed changes to the state’s election administration. Democratic Secretary of State Doug La Follette, who is seeking a 12th term, does not support adding election oversight to the position’s responsibilities.