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Wisconsin Republicans race to reinvent state’s election system — again

From the 22 of the most-read Wisconsin politics stories of 2022 series
Wisconsin Republicans race to reinvent state’s election system — again

Since the 2020 presidential election, Republicans have worked at a fever pitch to reshape how Wisconsin’s elections are run.

The GOP’s push to reinvent election administration in the state has worked its way into almost every crack and crevice of the system. 

At the Capitol, conservative lawmakers have introduced dozens of bills that would change absentee voting rules, bar municipalities from using grant money to cover election-related costs and make a flurry of other alterations to Wisconsin election law.

Republicans and their allies have also taken to the courts in Wisconsin, asking judges to, among other things, ban absentee ballot drop boxes and remove names from voter rolls.

In the media and in legislative hearings, GOP lawmakers and their allies have bashed the bipartisan Wisconsin Elections Commission — with some calling for most of WEC’s commissioners to be criminally charged for the guidance they issued for the 2020 elections held in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Republican leaders even discussed dismantling WEC, text messages obtained by the Cap Times suggest.

Across Wisconsin, at the local level, a few dozen conservative voters at a time have gathered for “election integrity” training sessions hosted by the Republican National Committee and county GOP organizations.

GOP candidates are involved, with former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch — a gubernatorial frontrunner — boasting about her campaign’s recruitment of hundreds of potential poll workers.

It's been less than a decade since Wisconsin Republicans last overhauled the state's election oversight body, but some prominent members of the party are pushing to throw out that model and start over once again. While the push to entirely dismantle the state's election commission lacks the support of the entire GOP, the party is unified in its belief that major changes to the state's election administration are needed.

While most of lawmakers’ desired changes won’t become law in the short term, Republicans’ continued introduction and passage of election-related changes forecast what could come if a GOP challenger defeats Gov. Tony Evers in November.

How did Wisconsin get here?

Wisconsin is one of nine states in which elections are overseen by a board or commission, and is unique in how decentralized its election administration is. Elections are run by the state’s 1,850 municipal clerks and 72 county clerks, who are responsible for managing polling places, hiring and training poll workers and following the election laws enforced by the Wisconsin Elections Commission.

Election officials say Wisconsin’s decentralized elections can be a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, coordinating nearly 2,000 clerks — most of whom are part-time and have other jobs — can be like herding cats. But at the same time, research shows voters are more trusting of locally run elections — and, within the parameters of the law, local clerks can decide how best to administer elections to serve their communities' needs.

Although Wisconsin elects a secretary of state, the role has had nothing to do with election oversight since 1974 — in the wake of the national Watergate scandal — when the State Elections Board was created. 

For more than three decades, Wisconsin’s elections and ethics laws were enforced by two separate, bipartisan boards with nonpartisan staff. That changed with the formation of the Government Accountability Board in 2008, after an overwhelming bipartisan vote in 2007 to combine the functions of the existing ethics and elections boards and create a new board led by six retired judges (the nonpartisan staff remained). 

The push to create the GAB came in the wake of the legislative “caucus scandal,” which resulted in several criminal convictions after a Wisconsin State Journal investigation revealed widespread campaign activity being conducted on state time.

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Former GAB director Kevin Kennedy attributes the board's dissolution to a push by the Legislature to exert more power.

The GAB oversaw elections during some of Wisconsin’s most tumultuous political times — the recall elections (and subsequent court challenges) born from the battle over Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s signature Act 10 legislation. It also participated in a “John Doe” investigation into the financial practices of Walker’s campaign.

The board's handling of ballot designs, recall elections and the John Doe probe raised Republicans’ hackles, and in October 2015, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and then-Rep. Dean Knudson unveiled a proposal to split the GAB into two commissions, both run by partisan appointees rather than the retired judges. Unlike the previous ethics and elections boards, the new commissions would be evenly split between Republican and Democratic appointees — creating the new possibility of tie votes. 

Vos and Knudson said while the GAB was created with good intentions, it had been an eight-year "failed experiment."

"The structure that we had was not sufficient to provide the kind of oversight and regulation that we wanted to have in a completely nonpartisan manner," Knudson said at the time.

Citing findings from several audits, Knudson said the GAB failed to follow state law, failed to develop written policies and failed to follow some of its own policies.

In the months leading up to the proposal’s introduction, Republican legislative leaders had called for GAB director Kevin Kennedy's resignation, calling GAB a "rogue agency that ignores state law and operates against its founding principles,” and Walker had said he wanted to see the board dismantled and replaced with something new.

Just six years later, in 2020, Rep. Janel Brandtjen, R-Menomonee Falls — now the chair of the Assembly Committee on Campaigns and Elections — declared WEC a “rogue agency” as she falsely asserted that “Donald Trump won this election in Wisconsin.” And Republican leaders have, for months, called for Meagan Wolfe, WEC’s nonpartisan administrator, to resign.

Democrats argued, as Republicans orchestrated the GAB’s cessation, that a return to a model with partisan appointees would lead to gridlock and toothless enforcement of ethics rules and election law. 

Kennedy — whose nearly four-decade career in Wisconsin elections administration began when he joined the Elections Board in 1979 — believes the new ethics and elections commissions were designed with the Legislature’s ability to exert power in mind. 

“I've always said that what drove the dissolution of the Government Accountability Board wasn't so much what or who we were investigating, but the fact that the Legislature really was also in the throes of, ‘We’re the Legislature; we should have more control over this stuff,’” Kennedy said in an interview. “So the whole concept of an independent executive agency was being thrown out.”

That push for control, Kennedy said, is one of the biggest differences between earlier election oversight bodies and the current system.

“You see it clearly. It's not limited to elections,” Kennedy said. “They have taken away a lot of local control and a lot of decisions where they think, ‘We know better.’”

Fears of interference

Wisconsin’s presidential elections have often balanced on a knife’s edge. Democrat Al Gore defeated Republican George W. Bush by just 5,708 votes in 2000, and Democrat John Kerry edged Bush by 11,384 votes in 2004. Candidates who took commanding leads in the Badger State include Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

In other words, Wisconsin isn’t so much a “red” or “blue” state as it is a “purple” state.

Then came Trump’s 2016 victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton. It was the first time a Republican had won the state’s 10 electoral votes since 1984 — and the margin was slim.

Green Party candidate Jill Stein requested a recount, alleging some electronic voting machines in Wisconsin were "susceptible to compromise” and suggesting there were "irregularities" in the state's vote totals that "indicate(d) potential tampering with electronic voting systems." Trump unsuccessfully sued to stop the effort.

At the time, elections commissioner Mark Thomsen said the recount offered a "complete audit of our complete state system to identify where the weaknesses are." The recount revealed some problems with older machines, but most issues were attributed to human error. There was no evidence of any hack into computer infrastructure. It was later revealed that Russian hackers had, in fact, attempted to hack into Wisconsin’s voter registration system, but their efforts were unsuccessful.

The 2016 recount boosted Trump's lead over Clinton to 22,748 votes, up from 22,617. The following year, Republicans enacted a law tightening the thresholds for candidates to request recounts.

 “After 2016, we spent a lot of time leading up to 2020 focusing on election security. First of all, making sure all of our systems were secure, but then also dealing with election misinformation and disinformation, and trying to get the public to recognize that election officials were the ones that they should listen to about how elections are conducted,” said Madison City Attorney Michael Haas, who started at the GAB as staff counsel in 2008 and served as the state’s elections administrator — first at GAB, then at WEC — from 2013-2018, in an interview.

Questioning the system

Despite those efforts, new conspiracy theories arose from the 2020 election — but this time, critics’ sights were trained on the American electoral system itself.

Trump has falsely accused Wisconsin Republican leaders of “working hard to cover up election corruption” and falsely claimed that, “actually, I won Wisconsin.”

And he’s found support from elected officials. In spite of multiple recounts and court rulings reaffirming Biden’s Wisconsin victory, even some members of the state Legislature continue to cry “fraud,” claiming the vote was stolen from Trump.

“There is no doubt that after the filed affidavits and lawsuit, Donald Trump won this election in Wisconsin and several methods of fraud were used to change the outcome,” Brandtjen wrote to her constituents in December 2020. “Between the election and the recount, the exposure of the abuse of our election laws and the willingness to outright ignore the law, has been a wake-up call to many. … Without fair and transparent elections, society will revolt.”

Last month, Assembly GOP leaders rejected — for the second time — an effort by Rep. Timothy Ramthun, R-Campbellsport, to “reclaim” the state’s 10 electoral votes for Trump, although such a move is not legally possible. This came after Ramthun was disciplined following claims that Vos had coordinated with Clinton’s lawyers to authorize absentee ballot drop boxes in Wisconsin. 

“My frustration with the average conspiracy theorists is this: They do not ask about the electoral processes. They make assertions that are factually incorrect, or not even possible,” said state Sen. Kathy Bernier, R-Chippewa Falls, in an interview, citing allegations of dropbox fraud as an example.

Bernier, who chairs the Senate Committee on Elections, Election Process Reform and Ethics, served for 12 years as Chippewa County Clerk. She is a dyed-in-the-wool Republican. She supported Trump as a candidate and as president, and would never vote for Joe Biden or anyone like him, she said. And she is tired of Trump’s attacks on the integrity of U.S. elections and the people who administer them.

“How many forensic audits or audits or research do we have to do to prove to him that he did not win? And that is the problem I have with him,” Bernier said, noting that the former president implied in a recent statement that she is a RINO (Republican in Name Only) for supporting drop boxes.

“What he doesn't understand and he probably won't listen to is, I don't like Joe Biden as my president. I would not vote for Joe Biden,” she said. “But because of your behavior — you, Donald J. Trump — because of your behavior, I won't vote for you either.”

“I don't even expect him to be ‘presidential.’ I'm sure there are lots of presidents we've had that were less than presidential. But at least have some sort of humility and integrity to say, ‘You know what? All right. I can see that I lost the election. Let's move on. Let's plan ahead. … Let’s let it not be about me. Let's let it be about Republicans,” she continued. “And so, back atcha, DJT — you're a RINO. You’re a Republican in Name Only if it’s just all about you.”

Sen. Kathleen Bernier (copy)


Dozens of election-related bills introduced

Since January of last year, at least 51 election-related bills have been introduced in the Legislature, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Reference Bureau.

Most of the measures have been introduced by Republicans, though some legislation garnered bipartisan support.

So far, just 11 proposals have been passed by both chambers of the Legislature. Only a handful of them have been signed into law by Gov. Tony Evers — including mostly non-controversial updates, like one allowing home-schooled private school students to serve as election inspectors.

At least seven of the other passed bills have met, at least in part, Evers’ veto pen. Included in the vetoed legislation is:

  • A bill barring municipalities from using grant money or donated equipment for election administration purposes;
  • A measure limiting early absentee voting to the two weeks before — and ending on the Sunday ahead of — Election Day. The same bill would prohibit anyone that is not a family member or “legal guardian” of a voter from returning their completed absentee ballot. A person returning an absentee ballot that does not belong to a family member would be guilty of a felony under the legislation;
  • A bill that would, among other changes, prevent all voters in Wisconsin — except military voters — from automatically being mailed an absentee ballot;
  • A measure requiring administrators of qualifying nursing homes to notify the relatives of residents with the times and dates of when special voting deputies will be at the facility;
  • A bill requiring election observers at polling places be seated no more than three feet away from the check-in and registration tables at a polling place;
  • Legislation that would, among other things, prevent election clerks from correcting small errors on absentee ballots;
  • And a bill requiring municipalities, if they broadcast canvassing proceedings live in any election, to record the broadcast and require the municipal clerk to retain the recording for 22 months.

Evers tweeted on Sunday, “I won’t do anything that makes it harder for eligible voters to vote. That’s a promise.”

But Republicans have not been deterred by the governor’s vetoes. Just last week, GOP lawmakers put forth another package of election-related bills — including one giving the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee the authority to cut staff and withhold funding from the Wisconsin Elections Commission if the committee determines it “failed to comply with any election law.”

Republican lawmakers last week also sought to cut Evers out of the process when it comes to certain rule changes. They introduced a constitutional amendment that would bar local municipalities from accepting grant money to use for election administration purposes (similar to the bill Evers vetoed). The amendment — which requires approval in two consecutive legislative sessions followed by statewide voters’ approval — could not be vetoed by the governor if it were approved.

The use of grant money from the Center for Tech and Civic Life to help cover pandemic-related costs during the 2020 presidential election by municipal clerks has become a focus of former state Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman’s GOP-backed review of the 2020 election.

“The impartiality of our election officials is paramount to making sure people trust in the outcomes of elections,” said Sen. Eric Wimberger, R-Green Bay, and Reps. Tyler August, R-Lake Geneva, and Tyler Vorpagel, R-Plymouth, who introduced the constitutional amendment to ban grant funding. “Unfortunately, private 'donations' for the administration of our elections on the local level played a huge role in determining the outcome of the last election.”

“I think the problem is that when you start to believe all of the misinformation and the false narratives, and you use that to produce legislation, it’s not going to be based on a solid foundation if you are proceeding based on things that are not true,” Haas said. “You’re trying to solve problems that do not exist; you’re simply going to create more complications.”

In addition to those proposals, Bernier has also introduced legislation including bills that would tighten the definition and requirements for indefinitely confined voters, allow only voters and witnesses to fill in missing information on absentee ballot envelopes, and require the WEC to resolve formal complaints within 60 days in most cases. Her proposals, she said, are modeled after the recommendations issued by the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau in its review of the 2020 election.

“I want verification on things when it is valid and helpful and useful,” Bernier said. “I don't want processes and procedures set in place that make it more difficult, but don't provide additional safety or security.”

Bernier also said in a recent interview on WKOW’s “Capital City Sunday” that she plans to introduce legislation to add a seventh, tie-breaking vote to the elections commission.

“I would like to say to Gov. Evers, read the LAB report, and read the bills that address the recommendations from LAB. And then you would really have no reason to veto them,” Bernier said.

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U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson exits a meeting with state GOP leaders at the Capitol in Madison on Nov. 10, 2021. GOP leaders discussed dismantling WEC, text messages suggest.

An audit and its aftermath

The legislative boom has unfolded alongside a ramp-up in public pressure from Republicans on the bipartisan WEC.

In October 2021, the LAB released its evaluation of the 2020 election. While the audit found few issues with the aspects of Wisconsin’s election it reviewed, it made 30 recommendations to WEC for future elections. Sen. Rob Cowles, the Republican co-chair of the legislative committee that ordered the LAB audit, said the report showed “the election was largely safe and secure.” 

Even still, many GOP lawmakers latched on to LAB’s recommendations, pointing to them as a sign of wrongdoing from WEC.

Days after the release of the LAB report, the Racine County sheriff accused five of WEC’s six commissioners of committing felonies when they issued guidance to election clerks saying they should mail ballots to nursing homes instead of visiting them in person during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Lt. Michael Luell gives a report on behalf of the Racine County Sheriff's Department on its investigation into the November 2020 election during a Committee on Campaigns and Elections informational hearing on Nov. 10, 2021.

The results of the LAB report, in tandem with claims from the sheriff, resulted in at least 10 GOP lawmakers calling for the resignation of WEC’s nonpartisan administrator, Meagan Wolfe, and some or all of the body’s commissioners.

Wolfe fired back against the calls for her resignation, telling reporters a few days later, “I think in some ways that they think I'm an easy target. I'm not.”

Wolfe, who was unanimously confirmed by the GOP-controlled state Senate to her role, said the calls for her resignation were “partisan politics at its worst.”

Vos has also suggested that WEC commissioners should be criminally charged for the guidance they issued about voting at nursing homes during the pandemic.

Less than two weeks after calling for the resignations of WEC officials, top Wisconsin Republicans met at the state Capitol building to discuss dismantling the commission, text messages obtained by the Cap Times via an open records request suggest.

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Text messages between Katy Prange, chief of staff for state Sen. Howard Marklein, and Jenny Malcore, chief of staff for Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, indicate GOP lawmakers' Nov. 10, 2021, meeting with U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson was, at least in part, to discuss dismantling the Wisconsin Elections Commission.

The meeting, on Nov. 10, 2021, featured U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, Vos, state Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu and a handful of other GOP lawmakers.

The meeting came after Johnson called on the Legislature to take over election administration in the state. In a recent statement to the Cap Times, Johnson doubled down on his belief that the Legislature should assert control over the state’s elections.

“Following release of the Legislative Audit Bureau report that showed the Wisconsin Election Commission (WEC) issued a number of guidances contrary to state law, WEC Administrator, Meagan Wolfe, remains defiant as evidenced by her refusal to cooperate with the State Legislature’s investigation,” Johnson said. 

He continued: “As a result, I have called on the Legislature to reclaim its constitutional authority over federal elections. The Legislature should also act to defend its oversight authority over state agencies, like WEC, that they have created. Without legislative oversight, agency accountability to the public would be dramatically diminished and confidence in government and election integrity further reduced.”

In January, both Vos and LeMahieu told The Associated Press they opposed the Legislature taking over the administration of elections in Wisconsin. 

Spokespeople for Johnson and LeMahieu did not answer questions from the Cap Times about whether changes to, or the overriding of, WEC were discussed during the Nov. 10 meeting in Madison. They also did not say what else, if anything, was discussed. A spokesperson for Vos did not respond to questions about the meeting.

‘Higher-level conversations’ 

Despite rejecting Johnson’s calls, the GOP leaders have not ruled out future changes, including the potential of giving some control of elections to the Wisconsin secretary of state — an idea that has gained traction in recent weeks, including with gubernatorial hopeful Kleefisch

For the first time in years, Democratic Secretary of State Doug La Follette faces a well-funded Republican challenge. La Follette was first elected to the position in 1974 and has held it since 1983.

Rep. Amy Loudenbeck, a member of the Legislature’s powerful Joint Finance Committee, is challenging La Follette for the position, which currently has few responsibilities.

Loudenbeck said she believes the secretary of state could and should be involved in Wisconsin elections.

“Wisconsin should look at ways to utilize this constitutional office, that is directly accountable to the voters of Wisconsin, to ensure election integrity at all levels,” Loudenbeck said in a video on her campaign website.

In an interview with the Cap Times, Loudenbeck floated several possible ways the secretary of state could be involved in the state’s elections, including giving the office a seat “on the WEC board.” She did not offer specifics about how she thought the office could best be used when it comes to elections.

Instead, she said she wants to win back the office for Republicans to “provide a conduit for having these kinds of conversations” about the secretary of state’s involvement in elections.

“If I'm elected secretary of state, I don't expect anyone to hand me over the keys to the kingdom,” she said.

“I really don't want to box myself into one particular best option, because I don't know that we need to be that specific,” Loudenbeck said in response to a question about how the secretary of state’s office would be best utilized as it pertains to election administration. “I think we need to have … these higher-level conversations right now.”

The Clinton Republican’s campaign has strong financial backing. Loudenbeck has $146,000 in her campaign account, according to a recent campaign finance filing. She also has the support of a majority of her fellow legislative Republicans. Her campaign reported that at least 53 members of the Assembly and state Senate had backed her bid for secretary of state.

The last time La Follette filed a campaign finance report, he had $5,000 in the bank. That was in January 2019.

Lawsuit targets ballot drop boxes

In June of last year, the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, on behalf of two Milwaukee-area voters, filed a lawsuit in Waukesha County challenging the legality of absentee ballot drop boxes.

Ballot drop boxes became a popular way for voters in communities across Wisconsin to return their absentee ballots while the COVID-19 pandemic raged. At least 855 election clerks across the state used ballot drop boxes during the 2020 election, according to a report from the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau.

On Jan. 14, Waukesha County Circuit Court Judge Michael Bohren ruled that drop boxes were not permitted under state law. Bohren’s ruling also barred voters from having someone else return their ballot for them — potentially banning events like Madison’s “Democracy in the Park,” where Madison poll workers collected absentee ballots and registered voters in more than 200 parks.

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The Wisconsin Supreme Court will decide in the coming months whether absentee ballot drop boxes are permitted under state law. 

Ten days later, a Wisconsin appeals court said drop boxes can be used for the state's Feb. 15 spring primary elections, temporarily blocking Bohren’s order banning their use.

The District 4 Court of Appeals, based in Madison, said in its ruling that barring the use of drop boxes would create confusion among voters and harm the state’s “election system as a whole” if such a ban were allowed to go into effect before Feb. 15.

WILL then asked the Wisconsin Supreme Court to take on the case. The high court had, until now, resisted ruling about the legality of absentee ballot drop boxes.

In a Jan. 28 decision to take the case, the state Supreme Court split 4-3 to allow the use of drop boxes for this month’s spring primary elections. In the coming weeks, it will decide whether their use will be permitted in future elections.

Republicans and their allies have also filed myriad other election-related lawsuits in Wisconsin. Kleefisch, for example, sued WEC over its guidance on absentee ballot drop boxes. The state Supreme Court last week declined to hear her case.

‘Ensure we WIN back Congress’

Republicans' push to reinvent election administration in Wisconsin has also taken root at the local level.

On and off for the past few months, Republican voters across Wisconsin have gathered, a few dozen at a time, at county party headquarters and local restaurants. The gatherings, social media posts suggest, are to help voters #LeadRight — a popular hashtag among conservatives on social media — by becoming poll watchers and workers to ensure “election integrity.”

Since Sept. 24, at least nine such election trainings have been hosted by county Republican parties across Wisconsin, according to photos posted to social media. They’ve taken place in the state’s largest communities, in the Madison suburbs and Milwaukee, in Green Bay and Oshkosh and even in rural communities, like Black River Falls.

The meetings “will educate and enable citizens to uphold the integrity of Wisconsin Elections,” according to a Facebook event titled “Pollworker Election Training” hosted by the Republican Party of Jackson County.

An email from the Republican Party of Dane County inviting people to an “Election Integrity Training” said “Election Integrity Must Be Our First Priority.”

“Being a poll watcher is good, but being a polls worker … is far better,” reads the opening line of the email.

“We are looking for Patriots like YOU to get involved in your local community that are ready to stand in defense of our Conservative values through becoming polls workers or observers,” reads the call to action in the email.

It continues: “These training sessions are designed to train and mobilize grassroots supporters like you to ensure we WIN back Congress in 2022. All you need to do is show up. We will give you the tools you need to organize your community to join our fight for freedom.”

On Oct. 23, the Republican Party of Dane County hosted its second election integrity training in as many months at The Fifth Quarter restaurant in Verona. About a dozen people attended the event, social media posts show. A Cap Times reporter attempted to attend the meeting, but was told it was closed to the public.

Similar training sessions hosted by local Republican Party chapters have taken place in other parts of the country, including in Texas, the New York Times reported.

Kleefisch has boasted about her campaign’s recruitment of potential poll workers. Her campaign reported in early December that they had identified “more than 600 potential poll workers for county parties to include on the lists they submit to their clerks.” 

The potential poll workers were identified, at least in part, via a paid media effort from the Kleefisch campaign. “Frequently, not enough Republicans sign up, and clerks must look elsewhere for workers,” an announcement for the campaign read.

“It is crucial that we protect the integrity of our elections,” declares a page on Kleefisch’s website. 

“Having our people working polling locations gives us more certainty that election laws will be followed,” Kleefisch’s campaign website states. “We cannot cede any ground to Democrats.”

It’s not uncommon for political parties to recruit poll workers — the Wisconsin Democratic Party is also recruiting ahead of November. But it is unusual for a party to present the idea that poll workers’ efforts can help ensure a party’s success in an election.

‘We the people … run the show’

Wisconsin Republicans are united in at least two things: They’re unhappy with the outcome of the 2020 presidential election, and they’re ready to take steps to change the way elections are run. 

Republican legislative leaders say they don’t support dismantling the elections commission they created. But the leading Republican candidates for governor — Kleefisch and Kevin Nicholson — have called for its end.

"They have been a lawless agency and they have completely disregarded statutes and the constitution. I think they have turned our elections into a circus,” Kleefisch said during a WTAQ-AM radio interview last month. “And so whether we choose to put it under the Legislature or the secretary of state’s office, elections in Wisconsin must have more authority for the voters so that they have essentially one throat to choke. They need to be able to bounce someone from office, whether it's the secretary of state or their legislator if elections go wrong."

Nicholson said in a WISN-AM radio interview that he would get rid of drop boxes and the WEC — “and I'm not one of the people who put it there in the first place."

Kennedy pushed back on the language used by candidates and officials casting doubts on Wisconsin’s election integrity.

“Take a look at the rhetoric. Take a look at the language people are using, because if that language is purposely inflammatory, they're not trying to solve a problem. They're trying to create a problem,” Kennedy said. “I mean, when Rebecca Kleefisch says there needs to be a throat to choke — you're trying to instigate an issue here; you're not trying to solve a problem.”

What’s most disconcerting to Kennedy, though, is the personal attacks directed at election officials and poll workers.

“The people who run those elections are your neighbors, and (they) take this as a privilege that comes with great responsibility,” Kennedy said. “Some races will necessarily be close because that's the nature of Wisconsin. … So that’s what’s particularly unnerving, is that the personal attacks have been taken out against individuals, because that's how you undermine confidence — you demonize people. People should be accountable for their behavior, but they don't need to be demonized.”

That’s what pushed Bernier to speak out, too.

“How can we look forward and encourage people to vote when all of a certain segment — a small segment, I hope — is saying that it doesn’t pay to vote because there’s so much fraud involved?” Bernier said. “I don't blame Donald Trump for being bitter, if that's what the case is, with Democrats. … But just admit that that's what's going on. … Don't tell people that it doesn't matter if you vote because the elections are all fraudulent. That's just too far. That's just way too far.”

So, why should Wisconsin voters trust the system?

Bernier, Haas and Kennedy gave the same answer: transparency.

Anyone who has a question or a doubt can observe the process.

“Anybody can go to the polls, anybody can ask their clerk about what the processes are. Anybody can look at the ballots,” Haas said. “And people can actually serve as poll workers, and then they would learn about the process, and I think have a better appreciation for what occurs at elections.”

Bernier said she wishes people would stop getting their information from social media and hearsay, and instead make an appointment with their municipal clerk to ask their questions.

She’s also hoping — but not holding her breath — that Trump will acknowledge that the election wasn’t stolen.

“Much of what he's doing is probably a lot for show, and to keep him in the forefront of everyone's minds. I don't know what he's thinking or why he's thinking it. But I know that it's hurting our republic. I do know that. 

“We have to have confidence in the electoral system, or we're not a democratic republic. We might as well be a dictatorship. And it is we the people that are supposed to run the show.”

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