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Beleaguered Wisconsin elections officials seek new office to fight misinformation

“False election information spreads like wildfire," said the top elections official in the critical battleground state.
Residents vote at the Beloit Historical Society on Nov. 3, 2020 in Beloit, Wisc.
Residents vote at the Beloit Historical Society in Beloit, Wis., on Nov. 3, 2020.Scott Olson / Getty Images file

The Wisconsin Elections Commission, the bipartisan organization overseeing elections in the battleground state, voted this week to request funding for a new office it says would help it fight misinformation.

The state has been the target of attacks from former President Donald Trump and other Republicans after Trump’s 2020 loss there.

In a 6-0 vote Wednesday by its evenly split Republican and Democratic commissioners, the commission requested $1.3 million from the Legislature to create an office of elections inspector general within the commission.

The primary purposes of the new office would be to fight misinformation and raise confidence in election results in the closely watched battleground, the commission's administrator, Meagan Wolfe, the state’s top elections official, said at a commission meeting Wednesday.

“To put it plainly, the election landscape since this agency was established in 2016 is nearly unrecognizable," she said.

“False election information spreads like wildfire," she said. "Continuing to answer the public’s questions in a timely manner and providing them with information about how our system really works can help tamp down those fires."

Trump and his allies continue to allege that the 2020 election was stolen from him. He and other Republicans in Wisconsin, including the GOP nominee for governor, Tim Michels, have continued to say without evidence that there was widespread voter fraud in Wisconsin.

Wolfe said the proposed new 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” but rather that it would be intended to “build trust by answering every question we get about our elections in an efficient manner.”

“Doing so will go a long way in preventing the spread of false information about elections by putting forth as much accurate information as possible from our own election experts,” Wolfe said. 

The commissioners’ formal proposal said one main aim would be “warding off attempts of electoral manipulation — both real and perceived” — to maintain the body’s goal “to instill public confidence in Wisconsin’s elections system and to ensure election integrity.”

Wolfe said that since the office was created in 2016, the average number of public records requests the panel receives, including voter data requests, has increased eightfold. The number of formal complaints is on track to increase more than sixfold from 2019 to 2022, she said. 

The funds, if they are authorized, would be used to hire 10 people, whose primary goal would be to fight misinformation about voting and elections in the state and increase confidence in results by being able to efficiently respond to the increase in records requests and complaints, a spokesperson for the commission said.

Wolfe said in her remarks Wednesday, “Timely responses are not only required by law but are crucial to public transparency and confidence in the agency.”

The commissioners’ vote, however, amounts to only a budget request for the next fiscal year's budget — which the next governor will assemble.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, who supports the commission, faces a tough re-election battle against Michels, who has vowed to eliminate the commission and replace it with a yet-to-be-named body to oversee elections. Michels has also suggested he would consider signing a bill that would decertify the 2020 election results — even though there is no legal vehicle, under state or federal law, to rescind a state’s electoral votes.

The commission has emerged as a target of criticism by Trump and other Republicans because of its guidance to local elections officials during the pandemic-stricken 2020 election, including increasing the number of absentee-ballot drop boxes.

Trump has repeatedly suggested without evidence that drop boxes were a source of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election, which he lost to Joe Biden in Wisconsin by fewer than 21,000 votes.

There is no evidence of widespread election fraud in the state, and claims to the contrary have repeatedly been dismissed by courts and the Elections Commission itself. 

A 14-month investigation into the 2020 election also yielded no evidence of widespread fraud, even as its architect, Michael Gableman — whom Wisconsin’s Republican Assembly leader fired last month — joined Trump in calling on legislators to explore decertifying the 2020 election results.

There is also no proof that drop boxes — mailbox-like containers that offer voters a convenient way to cast their ballots — enable fraud, and election officials have created safeguards to ensure that mail-in ballots are cast by eligible voters. Even so, the state Supreme Court ruled in July that Wisconsin voters casting absentee ballots will no longer be able to drop them in boxes anywhere except at the offices of election clerks.