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CAPITOL VISIT HIDDEN CAMERA

GOP lawmaker caught on video urging party to 'cheat like the Democrats or bend the rules'

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Elijah Behnke

Elijah Behnke

A newly minted Republican lawmaker told a group of visitors to his state Capitol office that Republicans need to “cheat like the Democrats or bend the rules” to win upcoming elections, according to a hidden camera video posted online.

Rep. Elijah Behnke, R-Oconto, also calls Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, a “swamp creature” and threatens to punch Democratic Gov. Tony Evers in a wide-ranging 27-minute video posted Thursday in which he appears to be speaking with people espousing debunked election conspiracies about the 2020 presidential election.

It’s not clear who shot the video, but it appears to have been taken near the end of Thursday’s Assembly session. One of the visitors appears to be discreetly taking the video and it does not appear Behnke knows he’s on camera. The visitors appear to be a small group of pro-Trump Wisconsin activists who were at the Capitol to meet with Republican lawmakers.

Behnke and Vos did not respond to requests for comment Friday.

The video was posted the same day that Vos and Republican leadership stripped Rep. Timothy Ramthun, R-Campbellsport, of a staff member for spreading a false claim that Vos had signed a deal with former lawyers for Hillary Clinton to authorize ballot drop boxes.

Ramthun in a statement Friday pushed back on ever making such a claim.

“Upon review of all written and posted communications by my office, including those most recent in an email of election evidence sent to the Legislature, there is no indication of me or my office making such a statement,” he said.

Ramthun also has been an outspoken promoter of false claims about the 2020 election. The visitors in the video appear to be staunch supporters of former President Donald Trump’s false claims that the election was stolen. President Joe Biden carried Wisconsin by almost 21,000 votes.

‘Forensic audit’

In the video, the visitors press Behnke to call for a “full forensic audit” of the election, something he said he supports. But Behnke suggests leaders like Vos and even some of the Assembly’s most conservative members, including Rep. Shae Sortwell, R-Two Rivers, who he says strongly dislikes Vos, haven’t seen enough proof of fraud to warrant such an audit.

Behnke says in the video that fellow conservatives Reps. Chuck Wichgers, R-Muskego; Janel Brandtjen, R-Menomonee Falls; and Scott Allen, R-Waukesha, support a Republican caucus vote to back a full audit of the election results, but there may not be 31 votes in the 61-member bloc needed to approve the measure.

Rep. Elijah Behnke

Behnke

At another point, Behnke says he’s convinced there was fraud in the election and hypothesized, “It could be 160,000, it could have been 16,000.”

The statement has no basis in fact.

Full verification

The results of the 2020 election have been confirmed by county canvassing boards, which compare vote totals against paper records and other procedures designed to catch and correct errors; recounts in Dane and Milwaukee counties; post-election audits by local and state election authorities to identify cases of possible voter fraud, which are then referred to prosecutors; a voting equipment audit by the elections commission; and reviews by the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau and the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, which found ways in which elections could be improved but no evidence of widespread fraud. Multiple court rulings have also found no evidence of irregularities.

An analysis by The Associated Press found only 31 potential cases of voter fraud in Wisconsin’s 2020 election. In 26 of the 31 cases, prosecutors declined to bring charges after conducting a review.

At one point, one of the women meeting Behnke pushed back against his suggestion to “cheat like the Democrats,” which he states twice, saying, “We can’t be cheating. … I don’t agree with you on that. Otherwise, what are we? Just two gangs fighting each other.”

Leader responds

Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, who announced Tuesday he will not seek another term, said in a statement, “While I don’t agree with the way Representative Behnke shared his opinion, I do understand that there is a growing frustration with the way Democrats in the state have been pushing the envelope on our election laws.”

Steineke referred in his statement to guidance Dane and Milwaukee county clerks gave to voters ahead of the 2020 spring election in which they said voters could claim indefinitely confined status due to COVID-19 restrictions and thus not have to submit a photo ID with their absentee ballot. The bipartisan Wisconsin Elections Commission rejected that guidance, the clerks rescinded it before the 2020 presidential election and the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled it was up to voters to decide whether they were indefinitely confined.

Steineke also referenced “ballot harvesting,” a term Republicans have applied to Madison’s Democracy in the Park event, in which deputized clerks collected 17,000 absentee ballots at city parks. There is no evidence the event resulted in fraud, and the Supreme Court declined to rule on its legality while a lower court deemed it legal.

Shot at governor

In the video, Behnke also took aim at Evers for his stay-at-home orders issued in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, which the state Supreme Court struck down, saying he feels like punching the governor but hasn’t come face to face with him yet.

In response, Evers’ spokesperson Britt Cudaback said the governor “believes in doing the right thing and leading with kindness, respect, empathy, and compassion. It’s a shame those Wisconsin values seem to be lost on Republicans in the Legislature.”

Behnke was elected in an April special election to the Assembly seat previously held by Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette.

Wisconsin Democratic Party chair Ben Wikler called on Vos to investigate the incident, strip Behnke of his committee assignments and remove him from the caucus.

“Behnke’s suggestion that Republicans should cheat in elections, while on taxpayer-funded time inside the Capitol, appears on its face to constitute illegal electioneering while serving in an official capacity — and a disturbing encouragement of further illegal behavior,” he said.

The 2020 election is over. Here’s what happened (and what didn’t)

The 2020 election was “the most secure in American history,” according to the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, which coordinates the nation’s election infrastructure.

While a handful of voters risked going to prison by attempting to vote twice or in the name of a dead relative, as happens in any election, no evidence of widespread fraud has ever been produced in Wisconsin or elsewhere.

Yet, many continue to question some of the practices clerks relied on to encourage eligible voters to cast ballots and make sure their votes were counted amid the first election in more than 100 years held during a pandemic.

The Wisconsin State Journal has covered every twist and turn of this debate in scores of stories. But here are a few that offered some broader context about what happened, and didn't happen, in the election of 2020.

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The state has multiple, overlapping safeguards aimed at preventing ineligible voters from casting ballots, tampering with the ballots or altering vote totals.

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Nothing in the emails suggests there were problems with the election that contributed in any meaningful way to Trump's 20,682-vote loss to Joe Biden.

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"Despite concerns with statewide elections procedures, this audit showed us that the election was largely safe and secure," Sen. Rob Cowles said Friday.

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The grants were provided to every Wisconsin municipality that asked for them, and in the amounts they asked for. 

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"Application of the U.S. Department of Justice guidance among the clerks in Wisconsin is not uniform," the memo says.

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YORKVILLE — The Racine County Sheriff’s Office announced in a Thursday morning news conference that it has identified eight cases of what it believes to be election fraud at a Mount Pleasant nursing home.

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The memo states that state law gives the Audit Bureau complete access to all records during an audit investigation and federal law and guidance does not prohibit an election official from handing over election records.

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Drop boxes were used throughout Wisconsin, including in areas where Trump won the vast majority of counties.

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"I don't think that you instill confidence in a process by kind of blindly assuming there's nothing to see here," WILL president and general counsel Rick Esenberg said.

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The report is the latest to show that there was not widespread fraud in Wisconsin.

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The clear insinuation was that someone not qualified to conduct an election improperly influenced these vulnerable voters. But the Wisconsin State Journal could not confirm the data. 

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The turnout at nursing homes in Brown, Kenosha, Milwaukee and Racine counties in 2020 was not much different from the turnout in 2016.

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