It’s been more than a week since unofficial vote counts showed Democrat Joe Biden winning Wisconsin and enough other states to become the next president, yet almost all elected Republicans in Wisconsin remain silent on Biden’s victory.
The Wisconsin State Journal last week asked each member of the Legislature whether he or she believed Democrat Joe Biden won the election. Of 81 Republican lawmakers in the Assembly and Senate, just one said he believes Biden won Wisconsin and is president-elect.
Most Republicans didn’t respond, but four others who did declined to acknowledge Biden as the winner, even as vote totals show him with 306 votes in the Electoral College, the same number President Donald Trump had in 2016 (before two faithless electors backed others, leaving him with 304 votes).
Conversely 44 of 47 Democratic lawmakers in the Assembly and Senate responded and all said Biden is the winner of Wisconsin and president-elect.
Of the Republicans to respond, only one — Sen. Luther Olsen, of Ripon, who is retiring this year — acknowledged Biden’s victory, unless there is some extraordinary and unforeseen circumstance that would overturn the unofficial result.
Sen. Duey Stroebel, R-Saukville, said a winner will be determined when the electoral college meets in December or one of the major candidates concedes. Sen. Kathy Bernier, R-Chippewa Falls, said she wouldn’t recognize Biden as the president-elect until all election results have been certified. She said it is a candidate’s choice to determine when to concede before the results are certified.
And Rep. Joe Sanfelippo, R-New Berlin, said in an interview he thinks Biden is the presumed winner of the election in Wisconsin, but contended that various election laws were broken and wants a third-party audit conducted to “tell us that the laws that were broken did not affect the outcome.”
Their answers come as Trump’s campaign and Republicans fish for ways in various states to throw the result into doubt.
Even though the results are unofficial, it is unprecedented in modern times for a president not to concede once all major news networks call the race for the candidate who has won enough states to reach at least 270 votes in the Electoral College.
It’s also unusual for the opposition to deny who won. Clinton conceded the same day the 2016 election was called, while Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, sent a letter to Trump addressing him as president-elect within nine days of his win.
And though some states like Georgia are conducting a recount, of 31 statewide recounts since 2000 only three changed the outcome of the election, according to the Associated Press. The initial margins in those races were all under 300 votes. In states Biden is leading by the smallest margin, he is still up more than 10,000 votes.
In Wisconsin, unofficial tallies show Biden won the state by fewer than 21,000 votes, similar to the roughly 23,000 votes by which Trump carried the state in 2016.
That year, a statewide recount requested by third-party candidate Jill Stein resulted in Trump netting 131 additional votes out of nearly 3 million cast.
As of Friday morning, 60 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties had certified the results, with Biden picking up 48 additional votes while Trump gained 44. One reason for the change is the addition of provisional ballots, of which there were 366.
Trump is refusing to concede based on unfounded and erroneous claims of widespread fraud, leaving Republicans in Wisconsin largely silent on Biden’s unofficial victory while they open up an investigation into the election process.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, assigned the Assembly Committee on Campaigns and Elections to investigate Wisconsin’s election. Committee chairman Rep. Ron Tusler, R-Harrison, said he plans to hold joint hearings with the Senate likely starting later this week that will be open to the public.
While that investigation, expected to start up next week with public testimony from election officials, could shore up public confidence in the outcome, it could also sow more doubt if the committee airs misinformed claims of election fraud or doesn’t resolve the claims, said UW-La Crosse assistant political science professor Anthony Chergosky.
“A healthy democracy relies on broad acceptance of election outcomes, even if they don’t go your way,” Chergosky said. “When people simply deny the legitimacy of someone who was elected president, when someone isn’t willing to admit that a political opponent might be elected fair and square, then that just leads to real erosion of democracy.”
Republicans are laboring to straddle the line between entertaining allegations of election fraud to pacify Trump and their base voters while simultaneously attempting to shore up support of Wisconsin’s electoral system.
“The fact of the matter is it’s an educational opportunity for the Legislature and or the citizens of the state of Wisconsin to understand better what our electoral process is,” said Bernier, a former Chippewa County clerk who chairs the Senate elections committee.
Vos said he created the election committee investigation to guarantee that the election was conducted fairly. Vos told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel it is “unlikely” the Assembly elections committee would find enough cases of fraud to overturn the election result, but was unsure.
Meagan Wolfe, the administrator for the Wisconsin Elections Commission, has said there is no evidence of systemic or widespread election issues.
Nonetheless, Republicans say they will entertain the “thousands” of reports they’ve received of suspicions and frustrations from concerned citizens.
Tusler said the result of the committee’s work may include finding ways to improve future elections, rooting out voter fraud and explaining to the public how elections work.
“Right now we had a very close election, and I think we need a lot more work and effort to check, double-check and triple-check our election to make sure that the votes were properly counted and no fraud occurred, or whatever fraud occurred didn’t impact the actual result of the election,” Tusler said.
Tusler told the State Journal he wanted to wait until any recount and investigations conclude before recognizing a winner in the presidential election. He added that, if it becomes clear that no election-changing issues occurred, Trump should concede.
Sanfelippo, a member of the Assembly elections committee, has concerns about the Wisconsin Election Commission not deactivating more than 200,000 registered voters suspected of moving, the thousands of people who said they were “indefinitely confined” and the fact the Green Party’s presidential ticket was kept off the ballot.
He wants an investigation and third-party audit to determine whether the election outcome was affected.
“If an investigation shows these actions affected the outcome of the election, we need to either declare this past election null and void and hold a new election or require our Electoral College delegates to correct the injustice with their votes,” Sanfelippo said in a statement.
The Elections Commission said claims it did not follow the law by not removing 232,000 potential movers on the registration list are unfounded. The Wisconsin Court of Appeals ruled in February 2020 the commission could not remove voters from the registration list and no decision has been issued on the case yet by the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
“The WEC will follow the Supreme Court’s decision once it is issued,” the commission said in a statement.
To ensure integrity in the election, any voters who may have moved were asked to affirm their address when receiving a ballot. Those voters had a watermark next to their name in the poll book and were asked to sign to affirm that they still live there. If any voter has moved, they are directed to register to vote before they can be issued a ballot.
Bernier said she opposes redoing the election or having the state’s electors vote for the candidate who didn’t win the popular vote in the state. The committee doesn’t have the authority to order either of those things.
“If there are ballots that don’t belong to a person on a poll list, it will be glaringly obvious. Maybe Joe Sanfelippo doesn’t understand that if they voted more than once, the statewide voter registration system will catch that,” Bernier said. “I get a little frustrated with other human beings who have not run elections who don’t really understand all the checks and balances in place, who see this glaring hole that really isn’t a glaring hole.”
Barry Burden, a UW-Madison political science professor and the director of the Elections Research Center, said politicians have a role to play in how the public perceives elections.
“When they raise questions about elections that are not based on fact or don’t have that kind of substantial foundation below them that actually undermines confidence,” Burden said. “A person saying publicly that they lack confidence or they have a suspicion about something going wrong, that actually fuels suspicion or lack of confidence so it becomes kind of a vicious circle.”
Transfer of power
A Reuters/Ipsos national opinion survey found that 79% of U.S. adults believe Biden won the White House. Another 13% said the election has not yet been decided, 3% said Trump won and 5% said they do not know.
Dale Schultz, a former Republican Senate Majority Leader who has bucked his party on various issues, said he understands hesitation by lawmakers to push back against their base, but added Wisconsin’s elections are “exceedingly well-run.”
“Right now, we just need to bring this post-election drama to an end and move on … more than 70% of the country right now believes Joe Biden won the election,” said Schultz. “At some point there has to be a recognition by the political class that that means something.”
U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh, also has refused to acknowledge Biden as the winner of the presidential race. When asked by a reporter Tuesday if he would congratulate Biden, Johnson said no and that there is “nothing to congratulate him about yet.”
Raising unsupported claims of voter fraud, Trump has blocked the incoming president from receiving intelligence briefings and has withheld federal funding intended to help facilitate the transfer of power. Biden has pushed forward with preparations to become the next commander in chief, but Trump’s resistance could also prevent background investigations and security clearances for prospective staff and access to federal agencies to discuss transition planning.
Schultz said he’s hopeful that Wisconsin lawmakers can reach a conclusion on the election soon, so the state can prioritize more effective response measures for the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“It seems to me that every leader in Madison has an obligation or responsibility to get this show on the road,” he said. “Part of that would be clearly communicating, at least privately, to the top leadership that it’s time to move on.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
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