State elections commission administrator Meagan Wolfe said Monday that calls for her resignation by some state Republicans following allegations brought forth last week by the Racine County sheriff are “partisan politics at its worst.”
Wolfe also said she is still learning the details of Racine County Sheriff Christopher Schmaling’s investigation related to the Ridgewood Care Center in Racine County, but added that “it sounds like there are some procedures that may not have been followed” related to absentee voting at the Mount Pleasant center. If anyone felt coerced or influenced to vote in a specific manner, as Schmaling suggested, Wolfe said local law enforcement should investigate.
“The commission is not a law enforcement entity and we cannot prosecute crimes,” she said.
Wolfe’s comments came after Schmaling last week accused the commission of breaking the law during last year’s election by issuing guidance directing election clerks to mail absentee ballots to nursing homes if special voting deputies, or SVDs, were unable to visit residents in person during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The allegations were followed by calls for Wolfe’s resignation from close to a dozen state Republicans, including Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester.
“I think in some ways they think I’m an easy target — I’m not,” Wolfe said during a press conference Monday. “I don’t think that the claims have any basis and I do think this is partisan politics at its worst, but at the same time I have an obligation as the state’s nonpartisan elections official to rise above it.”
Schmaling said eight residents of the Ridgewood Care Center cast ballots in the November election even though their families believed they did not have the capacity to vote. Without the poll workers, known as special voting deputies, to assist them, Schmaling suggested someone else had to have helped the voters, possibly even filling out their ballots for them.
State law does not bar those with cognitive delays or disabilities from voting unless they have been deemed incompetent by a court.
Wolfe said challenges surrounding last year’s election were compounded by the fact that many nursing homes were not allowing election workers inside due to the pandemic. If special voting deputies cannot meet with a resident, they have to mail an absentee ballot to ensure their ability to vote, she added.
In March 2020, the commission voted 5-1 that poll workers should not be sent into nursing homes to help with voting due to an order issued by Gov. Tony Evers that closed all nonessential businesses early in the COVID-19 pandemic.
A statement from five commission members — three Democratic appointees and two Republican appointees — issued Thursday outlined the process special voting deputies, or SVDs, must adhere to under state law when attempting to help nursing home residents vote, and how slower mail delivery and restrictions on who was being allowed into nursing homes last year put that process in jeopardy. Robert Spindell, a Republican appointee, was the only commissioner who did not sign on to the statement.
Wolfe also said the Wisconsin Elections Commission will convene on Dec. 1 to discuss next steps following the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau’s report released last month that made 48 recommendations for improvements in how elections are run. The Audit Bureau’s report did not find any widespread fraud or abuse that would have affected the outcome of the election and Republican lawmakers said the audit showed that the election was “safe and secure,” even if mistakes were made.
“The commission is very anxious and staff is very anxious to start working on those items, because I think we’ll be able to show that we’re able to make a very immediate, very good faith effort to make sure we’re addressing those concerns,” Wolfe said. “I think we’re all thankful to the Audit Bureau for providing us with a roadmap, in some senses, of some things we are able to take care of right away.”
Senate Republicans last week said they were also launching an investigation into issues raised by the nonpartisan audit. Sen. Kathy Bernier, a former county elections clerk and chair of the committee that will head the Senate investigation, said the review might begin sometime later this month.
Speaking on PBS Wisconsin’s “Here and Now” on Friday, Bernier, R-Chippewa Falls, said she disagrees with calls for Wolfe’s resignation, adding that, as administrator, Wolfe follows directions from the bipartisan commission.
“I don’t believe it is fair to a staff person to hold her 100% accountable for what the Elections Commission has decided,” Bernier said. “I believe the commission is set up for failure at this point with the personalities that are involved, with three Democrats and three Republicans, each voting their separate partisan wishes.”