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Legislative committee authorizes audit of 2020 election administration

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Dane County Recount

With election observers at left, Dane County election workers begin surveying ballots as a recount of the county's returns in the 2020 presidential election begins Friday at the Monona Terrace convention center.

A Republican-controlled legislative committee on Thursday authorized a comprehensive audit of the administration of the November election, a move that Republicans said will increase confidence in the electoral process but one that Democrats said might be used as a vehicle to do the opposite.

The Joint Legislative Audit Committee on a 6-4 party line vote authorized the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau to conduct an audit into how the presidential election was conducted.

State auditor Joe Chrisman said he anticipates the bureau will complete the audit by the fall of 2021 and that a series of findings could be reported along the way.

The committee allowed officials a broad scope of inquiry, but the Audit Bureau has proposed looking into efforts by the Wisconsin Elections Commission to comply with state election laws, including its work with local election officials to ensure voter registration data includes only eligible voters and providing training and guidance to clerks.

The audit is also expected to examine whether local clerks complied with election laws, including administering elections, processing absentee ballots and performing recount responsibilities.

Other topics of inquiry are the use of electronic voting machines, including the methodology and results of the Elections Commission’s most recent statutorily required post-election audit and the actions taken in its wake; as well as a look at general election-related complaints filed with the WEC and local clerks, and how they were addressed.

The audit could potentially also include other means of inquiry Chrisman views as appropriate.

“We’ve given him a broad brush,” said audit committee co-chair Rep. Samantha Kerkman, R-Salem.

During the audit committee meeting legislators peppered both Chrisman and WEC administrator Meagan Wolfe with questions about the election. Once completed in the fall, the audit could provide lawmakers ideas on how to improve election administration in Wisconsin, or clarify murky areas in state election law.

Republicans said they hope the audit will help increase public confidence in a presidential election that suffered widespread doubt about its integrity. Those doubts were fueled by false and misleading claims about election fraud pushed by former President Donald Trump and other Republican lawmakers.

“I know that this audit will help people understand our elections better and hopefully put to rest concerns, and if there are some problems with administration, I’m confident we’ll fix them,” said committee co-chair Sen. Robert Cowles, R-Green Bay.

The committee’s four Democrats voted against the audit, saying the results may provide a vehicle to pass laws that curtail voter access and rights.

“I have serious concerns about the timing and subject of this audit,” said Sen. Melissa Agard, D-Madison. “Divisions are more pronounced now more than ever. My fear is — and I hope it’s just a fear — that this audit will create a vehicle for more distrust and more disinformation.”

The audit authorization comes after a December committee hearing led by Republicans that was dubbed an investigation into the election but which included testimony rife with unfounded claims of voter fraud and lacking in evidence.

‘Thousands’ of complaints

Wisconsin election officials have confirmed the integrity of the November election despite numerous claims to the contrary. Republican lawmakers said they received “thousands” of complaints about how the election was conducted, but the majority of them were mass-generated form letters making nonspecific claims about alleged irregularities, a right-wing fraud-finding effort and a clip from Fox’s Sean Hannity show. Others implored Republican lawmakers to overturn an election they were convinced was rigged, even though local, state and national officials have confirmed its integrity.

The Wisconsin State Journal was able to identify just 28 allegations of election fraud or other irregularities that were specific enough to attempt to verify but could only partially substantiate one, involving 42 votes. Interviews with dozens of prosecutors, election officials and people who lodged complaints made clear that most, if not all, of the allegations could be chalked up to hearsay or minor administrative errors.

A report released this week by the League of Women Voters found election officials in November maintained orderly polling places, and that when problems did arise, they appeared to be limited and site-specific rather than the result of a generalized inability of the system to handle a large-turnout election amid changes in the law.

Special deputies

Also on Thursday, the Republican-controlled Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules officially warned the WEC that the guidance it issued for the November election related to special voting deputies is unlawful.

Special voting deputies are agents appointed by local clerks to enter nursing homes and help residents fill out absentee ballots. The commission affirmed in June that special voting deputies shouldn’t be allowed into nursing homes because of the risk of spreading COVID-19 to nursing home residents — among the most vulnerable to the disease — and that absentee ballots should be mailed directly to residents.

The commission based its guidance on conversations with state health officials and nursing home regulators, who expressed a host of concerns about letting voting deputies in the facilities.

The Administrative Rules Committee, on a 6-4 party line vote Thursday, effectively suspends the WEC’s ability to issue any directives related to special voting deputies until it issues an emergency rule.

That rule could then be suspended by the committee, meaning the special voting deputy guidance will likely be indefinitely suspended. The WEC could also change its guidance on its own to comport with the law.

To support their conclusion the WEC guidance is unlawful, the chairmen of the rules committee, Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, and Rep. Adam Neylon, R-Pewaukee, shared an opinion from the nonpartisan Legislative Council that “state law does not empower the Elections Commission to waive the requirement for clerks to dispatch (deputies) to qualifying care facilities, nor does it contain an exemption for clerks based on the pandemic.”

A WEC spokesman said the commission plans to discuss special voting deputies at its March 2 meeting.

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