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Green Bay, Democrats dispute report that private group took over city's election administration
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Green Bay, Democrats dispute report that private group took over city's election administration

Absentee ballots

The city of Green Bay and Democratic lawmakers are pushing back against a report from a conservative news outlet that a private group essentially took over the administration of November’s presidential election in Green Bay.

Supporters of President Donald Trump rallied in Madison on Nov. 6, 2020, where they were met with counter-protesters.

The report from the conservative Wisconsin Spotlight that grant money from the Center for Tech and Civic Life — funded largely by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg — led to “Democrat activists infiltrating the November presidential election” prompted some Republican legislators to call for Green Bay Mayor Eric Genrich’s resignation.

The city of Green Bay and Democrats, however, say the Wisconsin Spotlight report made “egregious and false accusations” about the integrity of the November election in Green Bay, that the city followed state and federal laws, and that the allegations are “completely without merit.”

“The election was administered exclusively by city staff,” a city of Green Bay statement said. “No ballots were ever in the care or custody of these consultants.”

Democratic legislators tore into the Spotlight report and said Republican lawmakers have “played host to conspiracies and falsehoods.”

The report from the Wisconsin Spotlight, which is affiliated with the conservative group Empower Wisconsin, makes a series of allegations based on a trove of emails released to the organization under Wisconsin’s public records law.

State Sens. Roger Roth, R-Appleton, and Kathy Bernier, R-Chippewa Falls, referenced the report in calling for Genrich’s resignation, although Bernier said the report does not necessarily call into question the legitimacy of Wisconsin’s election results. She and other Republicans called on Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul and Gov. Tony Evers to investigate the matter further.

On Wednesday, the Assembly Committee on Campaigns and Elections held an informational hearing on the Green Bay report featuring testimony from Eric Kaardal, a Minneapolis attorney who brought a lawsuit on behalf of the conservative Wisconsin Voters Alliance challenging the grants, arguing they amounted to bribery to increase voter turnout in Democratic strongholds.

A federal judge found nothing in the law to prohibit use of the grant money.

In a statement, Democratic members of the elections committee criticized Republicans for not including testimony from the Green Bay mayor’s office and charged them with airing unsubstantiated claims.

“This discussion is not a new one, and it follows the same pattern from the last hearing on the 2020 election: wild accusations, no evidence of wrongdoing, and implications of impropriety that run far ahead of the facts,” said Democratic Reps. Mark Spreitzer, of Beloit; Lisa Subeck, of Madison; and Jodi Emerson, of Eau Claire.

Involvement disputed

Among the allegations made in the Spotlight report are that Michael Spitzer-Rubenstein, a former Democratic operative, “in many ways became the de facto city elections chief,” citing emails Spitzer-Rubenstein sent the Green Bay city clerk asking whether he could help correct ballots missing a signature or witness signature or address; and a hotel checklist that said the doors to the hotel ballroom where absentee ballots were to be counted shouldn’t be unlocked until requested by Spitzer-Rubenstein.

The Spotlight report states Spitzer-Rubenstein was working for the National Vote at Home Institute, one of the subcontractors with close ties to the Center for Tech and Civic Life.

The city of Green Bay rejected the claim that employees of private election groups assisting with the election ever had any decision-making power.

“As part of the $1.6M election grant award, the City received technical assistance from experts in elections, security, public relations and analysis,” Green Bay’s statement said. “They provided additional input and insight, but never had access to ballots, computers, storage, equipment or the like. When staff agreed with the recommendations, we implemented those suggestions. When staff did not, the City implemented our preferred course of action.”

The Spotlight report also references a claim by former Brown County Clerk Sandy Juno that a contract stipulated Spitzer-Rubenstein would have four of the five keys to the hotel ballroom “several days before the election.” However, the emails referenced in the Spotlight report do not support such a claim.

The city’s statement said absentee ballots were kept at city hall until city staff delivered them to the KI Convention Center at 6 a.m. on Election Day using a “clear, documented chain of custody made up exclusively of city staff.”

The statement said a livestream of Green Bay’s central count facility was made available for the public. The statement further said the central count chief inspector was in charge of the KI Convention Center site at all times and was overseeing all activities, and that the inspector was present from the moment the doors opened until the count was concluded.

In an email to the Wisconsin State Journal, Green Bay City Attorney Vanessa Chavez said Spitzer-Rubenstein was the initial person who spoke with the KI Convention Center in an effort to help secure the room but that “city staff were the ones who actually handled everything.”

She said Green Bay City Clerk Celestine Jeffreys picked up the keys directly from KI and those were then given to Green Bay finance director Diana Ellenbecker, who retained control over them.

“Importantly, ballots were never stored at KI,” Chavez wrote. “They were stored at city hall and moved to KI on Election Day by city staff.”

And while the emails do contain one in which Spitzer-Rubenstein asked the city clerk about helping to correct absentee ballots, they do not include any response to his question. Jeffreys, who up until recently served as Green Bay Mayor Eric Genrich’s chief of staff, said operatives did not help with correcting any absentee ballots.

Jeffreys said it’s her understanding that the clerk’s office at the time followed the law for curing ballots by having only clerk staff or trained staff who were municipal electors participate in the process. Because Spitzer-Rubenstein was not, Jeffreys said he wouldn’t have participated.

Jeffreys and the city of Green Bay also dismissed claims that outside groups were in charge of the city’s election administration, though the former city clerk, Kris Teske, was on leave at the time.

“The clerk was still in charge, and we also had a deputy clerk at the time,” Jeffreys said. “They were making the decisions.”

Jeffreys said the city was “very much in touch” with the Wisconsin Elections Commission about its activities and “certainly adhered to the letter of the law.”

The Spotlight report also included emails showing Teske’s frustration over the grant committee’s involvement. Teske wrote on Oct. 22 that she was taking a leave of absence. She later took a similar position with neighboring Ashwaubenon.

Teske didn’t respond to a request for comment.

A Green Bay Press-Gazette report found Teske had complained for months that the mayor’s office had overtaken planning for the November presidential election and that her work environment became hostile.

But human resources officials determined her complaint was unsubstantiated and city officials disputed her version of events.

The city of Green Bay faced scrutiny following its handling of last April’s spring election after voters waited in line for hours to cast ballots and the city faced a shortage of poll workers.

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