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Wisconsin is lagging behind other swing states in shoring up election policies following 2020 chaos

Election workers and watchdogs are concerned the same loopholes exploited by Trump allies still exist in Wisconsin, as states like Michigan and Pennsylvania have taken action.
A SafeVote official ballot drop box for mail-in ballots.
A SafeVote official ballot drop box for mail-in ballots in Milwaukee in 2020.Bing Guan / Reuters

Four years ago, Wisconsin arguably was the state where Donald Trump came the closest to overturning the election results.

A barrage of lawsuits aimed at invalidating hundreds of thousands of mostly Democratic votes in the crucial battleground sought to take advantage of certain election policies in the state related to absentee ballots that were cast early and by confined or disabled voters, as well as those where election workers completed certain missing information on the envelopes.

The effort made its way all the way to the state Supreme Court, then controlled by conservatives, which ruled by one vote against Trump’s bid to overturn the results.

And yet, heading into the next presidential election, lawmakers in Wisconsin have done little to prevent a similar scenario from playing out again in the event of a close race.

State lawmakers have failed to enact any measures that would serve to clarify the nuances of absentee ballots that Trump, now the presumptive 2024 Republican nominee, attempted to exploit. They also have not closed loopholes that could provide allies of the former president with openings to insert conspiracy theories and misinformation.

And the Wisconsin Elections Commission, which oversees elections in the state, has issued pieces of modest guidance, but remains flooded with partisan attacks and efforts to impeach its top official.

That all stands in contrast to other swing states that were also targeted by Trump allies in the wake of the 2020 election. In Michigan, Democratic lawmakers have implemented broad reforms to election security and ballot counting. And in Pennsylvania, the Democratic governor recently rolled out an election security task force designed to mitigate threats to the vote this year.

But in Wisconsin, many of the same obstacles, questions and gray areas — regarding drop boxes, disabled and elderly voters, ballot processing and, perhaps most importantly, the protection of an election oversight apparatus that has been inundated by threats and attacks — remain unaddressed, alarming election workers and watchdogs in the state.

“Statewide, I don’t see a lot of change,” said Dane County Clerk Scott McDonell, the top election official in Wisconsin’s second-most populous county. “It’s not like something dramatically different has happened here,” added McDonell, a Democrat.

Jay Heck, the executive director Common Cause Wisconsin, the state’s branch of the national nonpartisan government watchdog group, added that the consequences could be dire if the right mix of circumstances were to emerge on or following Election Day.

“It could all explode,” he said.

‘Constant drumbeat’ of challenges unanswered

The lack of action relative to other key states is largely a product of two dynamics.

Unlike in Michigan and Pennsylvania, election administration is decentralized in Wisconsin. While Michigan and Pennsylvania have a singular office — the secretary of state — that has the ability to help push through election protection efforts and respond to threats in real time, elections in Wisconsin are overseen by the six-member, bipartisan Wisconsin Elections Commission.

But the commission has also been hamstrung. In addition to getting bombarded with conspiracy theories and threats by election deniers, its chief officer, Meagan Wolfe, the top election official in the state, has faced unending threats of impeachment and removal. The ongoing attacks have impeded efforts by the commission and could help to seed further potential chaos in an election cycle.

Meanwhile, the GOP-controlled Legislature has blocked numerous bills pushed by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers that would have addressed many different facets of elections, including one that would have allowed absentee ballots that have missing or incomplete information to be counted.

Republicans stalled another bill that would have allowed election officials to start reviewing mail ballots before Election Day — a measure that would speed up ballot counting, particularly in densely populated and heavily Democratic Madison and Milwaukee, where Trump allies portrayed slow counting of mail ballots as a sign of fraud in 2020.

Republican efforts to block bills like those have largely been a product of the deep fractures within the party related to how and whether to move on from Trump’s election denialism. A key Republican in the state Senate stalled the ballot pre-processing bill, for example, after an outspoken Trump ally and election denier raised questions about it.

And despite the fact that a highly publicized review championed by Trump allies in the state found no evidence of malfeasance or wrongdoing during or after the 2020 election, Republican lawmakers passed several bills — only to face vetoes from Evers — that experts feared would have restricted voting abilities.

Put together, it amounts to a “constant drumbeat of trying to undermine faith in our system,” said McDonell, who called the lack of legislative action “very disconcerting.”

The future of ballot drop boxes — a crucial component of the Covid-plagued 2020 election — also remains uncertain in the state.

The state Supreme Court ruled in 2022 that the use of most boxes was unconstitutional. In the years since, guidance from officials in the state regarding how and whether voters with disabilities and physically compromised senior citizens would be allowed to rely on others to help them vote remains fuzzy and poorly communicated, according to experts.

But the court, where liberals now have a majority, said last week that it would revisit the ruling.

Voting experts like Heck said it’s a rare bright spot. But he and others also warned of other possible changes, favored by Trump allies, that could further weaken election protections in the state.

For example, the April 2 primary ballot in Wisconsin will ask voters to decide on two proposed constitutional amendments that critics contend are byproducts of conspiracy theories touted by election deniers.

One will ask voters to decide whether to change the state constitution to ban the “use of private funds in election administration.” Following the 2020 election, Trump allies falsely claimed that the millions of dollars donated by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to groups helping election administration offices was merely a front by the tech mogul to help Biden.

Another question will ask voters to decide whether “only election officials designated by law may perform tasks in the conduct of primaries, elections, and referendums.” Critics say that Wisconsin laws already clearly outline who qualifies as an “election official” and that the amendment would needlessly narrow the number of people who qualify as such.

“[Passage of these amendments] is likely to leave election clerks all over the state of Wisconsin without the resources to run elections smoothly,” Heck said.

Democrats look to new state Supreme Court

The landscape in Wisconsin is a notable contrast from from fellow battlegrounds Michigan and Pennsylvania, where Democrats in power have recently put in place a string of election-related measures.

In Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed into law last year a sweeping package of election bills passed by the Democratic-controlled Legislature. The new laws expanded voter registration, toughened criminal penalties for poll worker intimidation, instituted regulations on the use of artificial intelligence and deepfakes in political ads, and strengthened and clarified the election certification processes that Trump allies exploited following the 2020 race as part of their effort to overturn the results.

In Pennsylvania, Gov. Josh Shapiro last month rolled out an Election Threats Task Force to keep the 2024 vote in the battleground state free from interference, misinformation and other major obstacles.

The bipartisan effort — led by Secretary of the Commonwealth Al Schmidt, a Republican who faced myriad threats following the 2020 election — wraps in 10 government agencies across the federal, state and local levels. The task force’s goal is to coordinate plans and share information and intelligence, mitigate threats to elections, protect voters and election workers, and to make sure voters get accurate information about their elections. Shapiro, whose Legislature is divided politically, also signed an order last year that automatically registered anyone getting a driver’s license in Pennsylvania to vote.

Riley Vetterkind, a spokesperson for the Wisconsin Elections Commission, noted that “amid a challenging environment,” the body had put in place modest measures since 2020 “to make voting materials easier to use, increase public engagement and understanding of the election system, provide timely guidance to local election officials on how to implement a significant volume of election-related litigation, increase the amount of post-election audits of voting equipment, and advance an administrative rule that will more clearly define the rights of election observers.”

But some Democrats aren’t overly concerned by the lack of action on this front, saying that the best hope for avoiding a 2020 repeat is the new liberal majority on the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

Trump’s efforts to overturn the election results in Wisconsin in 2020 were ultimately prevented by a 4-3 state Supreme Court decision, in which one of the court’s four conservatives at the time sided with the court’s three liberals at the time.

But an April 2023 election flipped control of the technically nonpartisan bench to liberals for the first time in 15 years.

Because “the Republicans have refused to implement anything,” said Ben Wikler, the chair of the Wisconsin Democratic Party, “the most fundamental guard against elections being unconstitutionally overturned is having a Supreme Court in our state that believes in democracy.”

“We have that now. We didn’t before,” Wikler said.The Wisconsin Republican Party didn’t respond to questions about the impact of the court’s makeup or efforts to make elections more secure in the state.