Wisconsin’s nonpartisan elections administrator is urging Republican lawmakers to reconsider a proposal designed to promote accuracy and confidence in election results after they stripped it from the state budget on Tuesday.
The GOP-led Joint Finance Committee voted on party lines to remove more than 500 items from Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ proposed 2023-25 budget, including nearly $2 million to create an Office of Election Transparency and Compliance.
The finance committee will now craft a new spending plan starting from the existing, or base, budget. The Wisconsin Elections Commission’s budget was among 13 sections the committee closed the book on during its first budget votes of the year, meaning lawmakers have no plans to deviate from the status quo.
“Following today’s Joint Finance Committee vote, I hope the committee will consider future proposals to increase oversight, transparency and accountability in our elections,” said WEC administrator Meagan Wolfe in a statement. “The proposal to create an elections inspector general program is exactly what Wisconsin needs to address voters’ concerns directly and reclaim confidence in our elections.”
The bipartisan commission’s recommendations sprung out of widespread and persistent, although false, allegations that former President Donald Trump was the real winner of the 2020 presidential election in Wisconsin. He wasn’t — Democrat Joe Biden won the state by about 20,000 votes, less than one percentage point.
The commission voted unanimously in August 2022 to request $1.3 million in state funds to create an office designed to promote accuracy and confidence in election results. Evers’ budget proposal allocated $902,000 for the office in the first year of the budget, and just over $1 million in the second year.
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 the proposal the commission approved.
The proposal would create an office 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.
The WEC vote followed significant spikes in formal complaints and requests for information following the 2020 election.
According to data shared with commissioners during the August meeting, the average number of public records requests the WEC receives went up 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.
Beyond that, the agency has 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 in August, Wolfe said the agency was on track to process more than 100 by the end of 2022.
“The additional resources in the proposal would allow the commission to increase the number of polling place accessibility audits, and to respond faster to public concerns, records requests, and formal complaints alleging violations of election law. These investments are critical to boosting resiliency in our election infrastructure ahead of next year’s general election,” Wolfe said in her Tuesday statement.
Asked about the WEC proposal ahead of Tuesday’s budget votes, Joint Finance co-Chair Rep. Mark Born, R-Beaver Dam, told reporters that Republicans generally aren’t on board with initiatives that would expand the size of state government.
“I just think that for the most part, we're focused on not creating new programs, not building new agencies or new offices within agencies — but investing in the priorities of Wisconsin through the current system,” Born said. “There really isn't a problem that there's not enough government.”