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Ron Johnson, Tim Michels won't unconditionally commit to accepting 2022 election results

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Ron Johnson, Tim Michels

Ron Johnson and Tim Michels.

To the Democrats at the top of the ticket this November, the answer is simple: Win or lose, Gov. Tony Evers and U.S. Senate candidate Mandela Barnes say, they will accept the results.

But for their Republican opponents — Tim Michels and Ron Johnson — the question is more fraught, with neither willing to say unconditionally whether he would agree to the outcome once the results are certified.

“It is certainly his hope that he can,” Johnson campaign spokesperson Alec Zimmerman said when asked whether the senator would concede if he loses.

“He would feel much better about the 2022 election had Governor Evers signed bills the Legislature passed to restore confidence in our election system,” Zimmerman continued. “That said, we are doing everything we can to ensure guidances and election procedures comply with state law. We will be monitoring everything closely.”

Evers’ challenger Tim Michels earlier this year said the 2020 election was “maybe” stolen and that decertifying the election’s results would be “on the table” if he’s elected governor.

His spokesperson Anna Kelly said Friday Michels would accept the Nov. 8 results, “provided the election is conducted fairly and securely.”

Wandrea "Shaye" Moss testified to lawmakers about how her life was upended when former President Donald Trump and his allies falsely accused her and her mother of pulling fraudulent ballots from a suitcase in Georgia. 

UW-Madison political science professor Barry Burden said that many conservatives, taking their cue from former President Donald Trump, are finding that pushing baseless claims of widespread fraud in the last election and raising doubt about the upcoming balloting “does animate a lot of the base.”

“By fudging the issue, these Republican candidates hope they can keep their coalition together going into the general election,” Burden added.

“They don’t want to lose the hardcore Trump backers who doubt the election, but they also don’t want to sacrifice any of the more moderate or established kinds of Republicans in the party,” Burden said. “And so the strategy seems to be, by making a bland or vague statement, you can allow your supporters to imprint on that what they think you have said and what they think the truth is.”

But is that a risk?

Some conservatives aren’t buying it, said Dale Schultz, a former Republican state Senate majority leader who has bucked his party on various issues in the past. While questioning the results of the 2020 presidential election played well among primary voters, Schultz said the message may turn off more moderate voters in the general election.

“The reality is, it’s killing the Republican Party, it’s killing conservativism, and party leadership is failing — and failing badly — and it’s going to have repercussions,” Schultz said.

Among likely voters, 86% of Democrats and 12% of Republicans are “very confident” the votes in Wisconsin’s 2020 presidential election were accurately cast and counted, according to a September Marquette Law School Poll. Those numbers include independents who lean Democratic or Republican. Sixty-two percent of Republicans were not too confident or not at all confident in the 2020 presidential election in Wisconsin, compared with 6% of Democrats, according to the poll.

Faith in system

Like their supporters, Evers and Barnes are confident in the elections, their campaigns said.

“Gov. Evers trusts Wisconsin election officials and will accept the results of the 2022 election,” Evers’ campaign spokesman Sam Roecker said.

Similarly, Barnes said, “I will commit to accepting the result of the election, and it’s shameful that Ron Johnson won’t do the same.”

Retired GOP strategist Brandon Scholz said it was a smart campaign strategy for Republicans to hold out the possibility something could go wrong.

“What if there was something where 100,000 votes in Madison, Milwaukee, Green Bay or other places were lost?” Scholz said.

No loss of votes at that magnitude has ever occurred.

While Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has raised questions about the results of the 2020 election, the Rochester Republican has also adamantly refused to entertain Trump’s call for decertifying the results — something that cannot happen under state law or the U.S. Constitution.

Vos narrowly avoided being unseated in the Aug. 9 primary by longshot candidate Adam Steen, who was endorsed by both Trump and former state Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman. Vos hired Gableman last summer to lead the taxpayer-funded review of the 2020 election that ultimately found no evidence of widespread fraud. Vos fired Gableman three days after the primary.

Fear ‘from the top’

Johnson and other top Republicans around the country have often said voting reforms are needed because many Americans don’t have confidence in elections.

UW-Madison journalism professor Mike Wagner called those statements disingenuous.

“There is no evidence of an organic worry about election integrity,” he said. “The worry about election integrity comes from the top; it comes from (Republican) party elites who’ve expressed that we can’t trust our election results ... The worry is there because they planted the worry.”

In 2020, Wagner, UW-Madison graduate student Yiming Wang and Washington State University associate professor Porismita Borah interviewed the same Wisconsinites before and after the presidential election, and after the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection. Their goal was to understand the effect news consumption had on voters’ values. The more they consumed “far right-wing news,” Wagner said, the less confidence they had in electoral and other democratic institutions.

Evers’ vetoes

Saying they wanted to increase confidence in Wisconsin elections, the GOP-controlled Legislature passed multiple voting-related bills earlier this year. A report from the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau last year found no evidence of widespread fraud in the 2020 election but made several recommendations for improvements. But Evers vetoed all of them, saying he wouldn’t sign into law any measure that would make voting harder.

One of the bills Evers vetoed would have given the GOP-led budget committee the ability to enforce staffing cuts or reduce agency funding at state agencies if the committee found the departments failed to comply with election-related laws. Another would have required the Elections Commission to submit to the Legislature’s rules committee any guidance issued to elections officials. One measure Evers rejected would have limited who could claim “indefinitely confined” status, typically used by voters who can’t get to the polls to request absentee ballots without having to submit a photo ID.

Evers also vetoed a bill that would have barred election clerks from filling in any missing information on a voter’s absentee ballot envelope and prohibited anyone other than a voter, immediate family member or guardian or designated individual to return an absentee ballot. But a Waukesha County judge earlier this month found the elections commission wasn’t authorized to allow clerks to correct those envelopes, and the agency has since told clerks they can’t correct errors on absentee ballot witness certificates.

“All Wisconsinites would feel more confident in the process had Tony Evers signed the numerous election integrity bills sent to his desk, but provided the election is conducted fairly and securely thanks to the historic efforts to ensure election integrity this cycle, we’ll accept the outcome,” Kelly said.

Michels has signaled he would sign those bills into law if he becomes governor.

Other court decisions have also gone conservatives’ way, including a July decision by the Wisconsin Supreme Court barring the use of absentee ballot drop boxes in the state. The court’s conservative majority also held that no one but the voter can return a ballot in person, but a federal judge later ruled that voters with disabilities are entitled to receive third-party help mailing ballots or delivering them to a clerk.

“These are some of the exact things that Republicans and lawsuits on behalf of Trump were arguing,” Burden said. “So they’ve largely gotten their way when it comes to election administration, but it apparently has not made them any more willing to say they are confident in public.”

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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