The Republican-gerrymandered Wisconsin Senate voted on September 14 to fire the battleground state’s nonpartisan top elections official ahead of the 2024 presidential election.
Democrats said the vote was held improperly and that lawmakers do not have the authority to oust Wisconsin Elections Commission Administrator Meagan Wolfe. The issue is expected to end in a legal battle.
The fight over who will lead the elections agency stems from persistent lies about the 2020 election. The weaponized right-wing effort has created instability ahead of the 2024 presidential race for the state’s more than 1,800 local clerks who actually run elections.
Wolfe has been the subject of conspiracy theories and threats from MAGA election deniers who falsely claim she was part of a plan to rig the 2020 vote in Wisconsin. GOP leaders cited those unconfirmed concerns from political extremists in justifying the 22-11 vote along party lines.
Election observers have voiced concerns that replacing Wolfe with a less experienced administrator or continuing to dispute her position could create greater instability in a high-stakes presidential race where election workers expect to face unrelenting pressure, harassment and threats.
“Wisconsin Republicans’ attempt to illegally fire Wisconsin’s elections administrator without cause shows they are continuing to escalate efforts to sow distrust and disinformation about our elections, denigrate our clerks, poll workers, and election administrators, and undermine basic tenets of our democracy, including the peaceful transfer of power,” said Governor Tony Evers said in a statement.
Governor Evers called for the state Department of Justice to represent Wolfe and help keep her in office. Meanwhile, Republicans introduced a resolution calling on the elections commission to appoint an interim administrator to replace her.
The move represents a continued escalation by Wisconsin Republicans in recent years to attempt to take over Wisconsin’s elections. Just two days ago, Wisconsin Republicans also announced they are rushing through new legislation aimed at ensuring the redistricting in Wisconsin was conducted by Legislature-picked, Legislature-approved map drawers. The New York Times has called Republicans’ efforts in Wisconsin in the wake of the 2020 election “an all-out assault on the state’s election system” that is “broader and more forceful than that in any other state.”
The bipartisan elections commission deadlocked in June on a vote to nominate Wolfe for a second four-year term. Three Republicans voted to nominate her and three Democrats abstained in the hopes of preventing a nomination from proceeding to the Senate for confirmation.
Senate rejection would normally carry the effect of firing her, but without a four-vote majority nominating Wolfe, a recent state Supreme Court ruling appears to allow her to stay in office indefinitely as a holdover.
“This will go into the legal system, and I’m confident that we will prevail,” Senate Minority Leader Melissa Agard said ahead of the September 14 vote.
Senate Republicans in June pushed ahead with forcing a vote despite not receiving a nomination from the commission. LeMahieu said he interpreted the commission’s 3-0 vote as a unanimous nomination. The Legislature’s nonpartisan attorneys and Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul have both contested that interpretation, saying the law is clear that an elections administrator must be nominated by at least four commissioners.
Wolfe did not attend a Senate committee hearing on her reappointment in August, citing a letter from Kaul saying “there is no question” that she remains head of the elections agency. That hearing instead became a platform for some of the most prominent members of Wisconsin’s election denialism movement to repeat widely debunked claims about the 2020 election.
Many of the same MAGA election deniers were present in the Senate gallery on September 14, cheering when the vote passed.
President Biden defeated Trump by nearly 21,000 votes in Wisconsin in 2020, an outcome that has withstood two partial recounts, a nonpartisan audit, a conservative law firm’s review and numerous state and federal lawsuits.
Many Republican grievances against Wolfe are over decisions made by the elections commission and carried out by Wolfe, as she is bound by law to do. In addition to carrying out the decisions of the elections commission, Wolfe helps guide Wisconsin’s more than 1,800 local clerks who actually run elections.
Wolfe became head of the elections commission in 2018, after Senate Republicans rejected her predecessor, Michael Haas, because he had worked for the Government Accountability Board. GOP lawmakers disbanded the agency, which was the elections commission’s predecessor, in 2015 after it investigated whether former Republican Governor Scott Walker’s campaign illegally worked with outside groups.
“This blatant attempt to replace the well-respected Wolfe with a candidate of their choice is just the latest attempt by the Republican-controlled legislature to subvert our democracy,” said State Senator Chris Larson in a statement. “That nationally respected body was dissolved because it was functional and called out clear and blatant corruption by former Governor Walker and Republicans.”
Senator Larson said that Wisconsin Republicans have spent the better part of three years casting doubt on America’s democracy. They have done so to appease extremist supporters of disgraced former President Donald Trump in his attempt to overthrow the 2020 election.
“Legislative Republicans and their allies have put up as many hurdles and roadblocks as possible to make voting harder. They instead focused, as they have done time and again, on efforts to consolidate their own power,” added Senator Larson. “We are seeing that same anti-democracy spirit in Speaker Vos’ threats to impeach a Supreme Court Justice so he and his party can continue to cling to illegitimate power.”
Since the 2020 election, some Republicans have floated the idea of abolishing or overhauling the elections commission as a measure to remove accountability.
Wolfe has worked at the elections commission for more than 10 years. She has also served as president of the National Association of State Election Directors and chair of the bipartisan Electronic Registration Information Center, or ERIC, which helps states maintain accurate voter rolls.