By Andy Monserud | Courthouse News

(CN) — An audit of Wisconsin’s 2020 election procedures served as a backdrop for partisan mudslinging in a lengthy hearing at the state Capitol Tuesday afternoon.

Auditors said they found no irregularities that could have altered the election results, giving the lie to allegations from former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman that the state’s elections had been “stolen” by President Joe Biden and Democrats. 

Questioning at the hearing of the legislature’s Joint Audit Committee, however, focused heavily on state auditor Joe Chrisman’s recommendations for the Wisconsin Election Commission, which included critiques of some practices adopted in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Republicans on the committee interrogated Chrisman and Wisconsin Election Commission Administrator Meagan Wolfe as to the deficiencies, while Democrats leapt to the WEC’s defense. 

Wolfe, who stressed that she could not speak on behalf of the whole commission without a vote from the commissioners, levied her own critiques at the auditors. Echoing comments she made shortly after the audit’s release, she said that while she appreciated many of the auditors’ recommendations, the report included errors. 

Chief among those errors, she said, was the auditors’ contention that the commission hadn’t made adequate use of data from the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC), an interstate nonprofit, which compiles voter registration and other data with the stated goal of improving voter roll accuracy and increasing voter registration access. ERIC’s data, Wolfe said, was only available to Wisconsin starting in 2019 and was only provided sporadically. The auditor’s implication that Wisconsin had missed opportunities to obtain data, she said, was “absolutely wrong.” 

“We should all want this to be an accurate record of the election, and I guess I’m taken aback that folks are so appalled that I would question that.” Wolfe said. 

“There are good recommendations, that we’re grateful for,” she added. “But there are errors.” 

State Representative Mark Born, R–Beaver Dam, reprimanded Wolfe throughout the hearing and snarked about her comments to the press on the topic before the hearing. “I assume that when you were talking to the media, you were also offering your opinion and not the opinions of the commissioners,” Born said. “I’ve never seen, in my 10 years in the legislature, an agency, a department head, really anyone really attack the audit bureau like you did in your comments a couple of days ago.” 

Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, whose legislative majority approved a $680,000 audit of its own in August, has called for Wolfe’s resignation following the audit. Wolfe has refused to step down, calling Vos’ attacks “baseless” and “just partisan politics.”

Also at the hearing was Madison City Attorney Michael Haas, who offered the city’s rationale for non-participation in the audit and called for a stop to what he called attacks on elections officials.

“Elected officials need to stop the hostile, untrue, and over-the-top accusations about public servants violating the law, and trying to punish them just for doing their jobs,” Haas said.

Auditors said they did not include the city in their audit because they required hands-on access to election documentation. Madison officials, Haas said, had relied on Department of Justice guidance in opting to keep the records in custody of city clerks. “There was no information that was kept, or would have been kept, from the audit bureau if they would have accepted copies,” he said. 

Municipal Clerk Vicki Terpstra of Spring Green, a village of 1,628 in central Wisconsin, said the legislature left local clerks woefully under-resourced to deal with the hardships of running elections in a pandemic. 

“Amidst all the nonsense that has ensued in 2020 … my legislature failed me, as well as it failed all of the other clerks, the boots on the ground that are doing the work,” Terpstra said. 

“I feel like I’m being persecuted for doing the best that I can in a lousy situation, without much help from the people who are supposed to be representing me,” she said of the audit. 

Among the practices auditors critiqued was WEC’s directions to clerks to mail absentee ballots to nursing homes and assisted-living facilities rather than send special voting deputies in person to assist residents as required by a state statute. In light of Covid-19 restrictions on entry to such facilities, Wolfe’s Democratic allies argued, such a mandate didn’t make much sense. 

Senator Tim Carpenter, D–Milwaukee, cited the case of an elderly neighbor who was unable to visit her dying husband because of pandemic restrictions. “If she can’t get into a nursing home, I don’t understand how we would have special voting deputies go into nursing homes that don’t want them there,” he said. 

“Had the legislature been doing its job, we could have, prior to, talked to the elections commission … and possibly handled some of these issues,” he added. 

The commission meets next on Dec. 1, a timeline Republicans had harsh words for. Representative John Macco, R-Green Bay, in particular critiqued the commissioners’ failure to attend the meeting. 

“I had to, about three weeks ago, cancel a trip to Santa Fe to do my job here,” he quipped. “bBut somehow you couldn’t get it together until December first.” 

“I just find this whole thing a joke today, and you’ve done nothing to allay my fears and concerns,” he told Wolfe. 

Wolfe retorted that he was barking up the wrong tree. “I cannot call a meeting of the commission,” she said. “Only the chair of the commission can call a meeting. I can’t force the commission to meet, I can’t chair a meeting of the commission, and I can’t schedule a meeting of the commission. So I’m not sure what you’re implying.”