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Legislature's GOP-led election hearing light on hard evidence, heavy on speculation
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Legislature's GOP-led election hearing light on hard evidence, heavy on speculation

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Several Democratic lawmakers abruptly left in protest of a GOP-led hearing billed as an investigation into Wisconsin’s 2020 presidential election, but included testimony rife with unfounded claims of voter fraud and lacking in actual hard evidence.

Republican Dean Knudson, a member of the Wisconsin Elections Commission appointed by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, told the committee he has not seen credible evidence of large-scale voter fraud in the Nov. 3 election, including any ballot dumps, fraud related to vote-counting machines or any stopping and restarting of the counting of ballots, as some have alleged.

“There has been no credible evidence presented to the Elections Commission that any of these problems occurred in Wisconsin,” Knudson said.

The more than seven-hour joint public hearing by the Assembly and Senate Committees on Campaigns and Elections kicked off Friday with unsubstantiated claims of fraud by Dan O’Donnell, a Republican-friendly host on Milwaukee’s 1130 WISN. Citing anonymous voters, O’Donnell made allegations of votes cast by dead residents, assisted living residents being misled into filing ballots for President-elect Joe Biden and alleged malpractice by the Elections Commission in the name of COVID-19 safety protocols.

Biden won the state by more than 20,600 votes, a result that has been certified and which election officials have repeatedly said exhibited no indications of widespread voter fraud.

Bob Spindell, a fellow Republican member of the Elections Commission, pointed to several factors including ballot drop boxes and the unanimous decision this summer by the bipartisan state elections referee to send absentee ballot requests to 2.7 million Wisconsin voters — a measure Spindell supported at the time — as creating the potential for voter fraud.

“What happened in Wisconsin that caused (Trump’s) 20,000-vote loss? … Three words: It’s mail-in voting,” he said.Reserve Judge Stephen Simanek of Racine County on Friday rejected President Donald Trump’s state lawsuit seeking to throw out hundreds of thousands of ballots in Democratic Dane and Milwaukee counties. Simanek said Wisconsin’s voting laws were properly followed, and that Trump’s attorneys had failed to adequately support their argument that elections officials erroneously interpreted absentee ballot law. The Wisconsin Supreme Court on Friday accepted Trump’s lawsuit.

Calls for stronger laws

Knudson called on the Legislature to enact laws to restore confidence in the state’s election process including more specific rules on the delivery of absentee ballots, tightened rules on who qualifies as an indefinitely confined voter, and a reform of the state’s central ballot-counting process.

State Sen. Duey Stroebel, R-Saukville, said in a statement that the Elections Commission “bears significant responsibility for the confusion that unfolded this year,” adding that he plans to work with Republicans to “draft reforms that will improve the clarity and detail of our election laws.”

The state’s GOP-led budget committee on Friday announced an objection had been filed against the Elections Commission’s request for $3 million from the state Department of Administration to cover the cost of recounts in Dane and Milwaukee counties. Trump’s campaign, which called for the recount last month, has already paid for the recounts. Due to the objection, the commission’s request will not be approved at this time and a committee meeting will be scheduled.

State Rep. Ron Tusler, R-Harrison, chair of the Assembly Campaigns and Elections Committee, said more hearings on the topic are expected. He said the committee plans to call on the Legislative Audit Bureau to audit election results in Milwaukee County.

Several GOP lawmakers and witnesses Friday raised concerns about the election.

“Wisconsin’s electoral house is on fire,” said Tom Sylke, an attorney who worked for Trump during the Milwaukee recount. “The Legislature is the only body in this state with the water to put that fire out. … The voters can accept losing if they trust the election.”

Numerous state and federal officials, including Republican U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr, have said there is no evidence of significant voter fraud that would overturn the results.

Republicans also debated during the hearing whether they could replace Wisconsin’s 10 electors for Biden with 10 for President Donald Trump — something Wisconsin law does not allow, state election officials have said. A lawyer for the Legislature reiterated Friday that state lawmakers can’t appoint electors for the most recent election. The Legislature could potentially amend state statute, but such changes would not be retroactive.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, who certified the election results last month, on Friday announced a Monday meeting of Wisconsin’s Electoral College members to officially assign Wisconsin’s electoral college votes to Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.

Two hours into the hearing, state Sen. Mark Miller, D-Monona, and state Reps. Mark Spreitzer, D-Beloit, Lisa Subeck, D-Madison, and JoCasta Zamarripa, D-Milwaukee, who attended the hearing remotely, announced they would no longer participate in the meeting, complaining they were not granted time to ask questions of some speakers due to GOP-enforced time constraints.

Several of the departing lawmakers, who said they would watch the remainder of the hearing online, and state Sen. Jeff Smith, D-Eau Claire, who attended the hearing in person, described it as “a sham,” noting it featured invite-only testimony from several conservative partisans.

The five Democratic lawmakers issued a joint statement calling the hearing “exactly the kind of disgraceful display that we all feared it would be” and a distraction from needed COVID-19 relief.

“This hearing does nothing but undermine our elections and election officials,” they said. “Witnesses attacked our clerks and poll workers while Republicans gave them no serious opportunity to respond. We will not participate in this sham hearing any further.”

In written testimony, more than a dozen municipal clerks and election inspectors criticized lawmakers behind the public hearing for inviting testimony largely from conservative partisans and allies of Trump.

Democratic Dane County Clerk Scott McDonell and Republican Milwaukee County Board of Canvassers member Rick Baas, were invited to speak, while Elections Commission administrator Meagan Wolfe and Milwaukee Election Commission director Claire Woodall-Vogg were not.

Village of Camp Douglas clerk Sarah Stark said in testimony she was “downright ashamed” of the persistent cries of election fraud, including from elected officials.

“We take the job of administering elections very seriously,” Stark wrote. “What you are doing is telling each and every one of the 1,852 Municipal Clerks (that) we committed election fraud. I just can’t comprehend how you can begin to think that we all rallied together to commit this fraud on a municipal, county, or statewide level. This has to stop.”

Fave 5: State government reporter Mitchell Schmidt shares his top stories of 2020

Choosing my five favorite stories of 2020 seems almost paradoxical.

This year has felt like one exhausting slog of pandemic stories, state Legislature updates and, oh yeah, a presidential election thrown in for good measure. Thanks to a split government, there's been no shortage of politically-charged stories here in Wisconsin and the partisan divide has, maybe unsurprisingly, felt as wide as ever throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

I don't know if "favorite" is the best way to describe them, but here are a few stories from 2020 that stood out to me:

Back in March, Gov. Tony Evers issued the state's first public health emergency in response to the then-emerging pandemic. At the time, Wisconsin had reported eight total cases of COVID-19.

As the pandemic progressed, positive cases and deaths climbed and state lawmakers battled over the appropriate response. In May, the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down Evers' stay-at-home order, a decision that still resonates today with the state's coronavirus-related measures.

One story I was particularly excited about before I officially started working for the State Journal was the 2020 Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee. However, like most things this year, the pandemic drastically altered that plan.

In non-pandemic news, the state in October formally denied billions of dollars in state tax credits to Foxconn Technology Group — a story we managed to get before any other outlet in the state through records requests and sourcing.

Lastly, in November I worked on a story about how GOP-drawn legislative maps once again disproportionately benefited Republicans in state elections. Wisconsin is headed toward another legal battle next year when the next batch of 10-year maps are drawn.

Feel free to read my top stories below, or check out my other state government articles from this year, (by my count, there have been more than 300 so far).

Also, thanks to all the subscribers out there. This year has been challenging on so many people, so your support is so much appreciated.

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