Republicans in Wisconsin are engaging in a multi-pronged attack on the state’s bipartisan election commission – in one of the latest efforts to relitigate the 2020 election in a key presidential battleground state.
Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson has publicly urged fellow Republicans who control the Wisconsin Legislature to take over the running of federal elections in the state and direct local officials to ignore election guidance issued by the Wisconsin Elections Commission.
His push, first reported by The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, comes after a Republican sheriff in Racine County called for five members of the state’s six-member election commission to be charged with felonies because they waived a requirement to send poll workers into nursing homes during the pandemic. On Monday, Rebecca Kleefisch, a Republican running for governor, asked the Wisconsin Supreme Court to find that the commission’s election guidance runs counter to state law.
Johnson’s calls for a legislative takeover of the elections system demonstrate “the firm grasp that the (Donald) Trump wing of the Republican Party has not only everywhere, but particularly here in Wisconsin,” said Jay Heck, who runs the state branch of Common Cause.
“It’s a lot of political bluster, but it has to be taken seriously in these times,” he added.
Johnson did not immediately respond to an interview request from CNN. But he told The Journal-Sentinel that the state legislature should claim authority over the election system and argued that the state’s Democratic Gov. Tony Evers is powerless to stop it.
“There’s no mention of the governor in the Constitution” when it comes to running elections, Johnson told the newspaper. “It says state legislatures, and so if I were running the joint – and I’m not – I would come out and I would just say, ‘We’re reclaiming our authority. Don’t listen to WEC anymore. Their guidances are null and void.’ “
“I think the state Legislature has to reassert, reclaim this authority over our election system,” he added.
Some Republicans aligned with Trump have advanced an aggressive interpretation of the so-called “independent state legislature doctrine,” which argues state legislators have full power over federal elections.
Top GOP lawmakers in Wisconsin have cast doubts on Johnson’s proposal. Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu said recently that he’s not sure there is a “legal opportunity” for such a takeover.
And Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos told reporters that the issue did not come up at a recent meeting with Johnson. “The idea that somehow we are going to take over the elections and do all those things, I’ve never studied that,” Vos said. “I don’t know about it.”
‘We did not break the law’
Wisconsin will be a key swing state in 2024. President Joe Biden won it by a little more than 20,600 votes in 2020; Trump captured it four years earlier by fewer than 23,000 votes.
The Wisconsin Elections Commission, established by Republican lawmakers six years ago, has faced anger and scrutiny from GOP officials about its guidance to local election officials in the run-up to the 2020 election.
A top issue: The commission’s 5-1 decision advising election clerks around the state not to send poll workers, known as special voting deputies, into nursing homes during the pandemic.
Racine County Sheriff Christopher Schmaling announced last month that an investigation by his office determined that employees at a nursing home in his county had helped residents cast ballots, which he said violated state law.
He recommended election fraud and misconduct charges be lodged against the five commission members who approved the guidance.
Officials with the commission said they did nothing wrong. They said the change in procedures was discussed in public meetings and occurred only because state and federal guidance limited access to nursing homes to avoid spreading the coronavirus to vulnerable residents.
“To put it simply, we did not break the law,” Ann Jacobs, a Democrat who chairs the commission, said in a statement, responding to Schmaling. “In fact, without action from the Commission, many residents in Wisconsin care facilities could have and would have been disenfranchised and not able to vote in the 2020 elections.”
Mark L. Thomsen, the Democratic vice chair of the commission, condemned Republicans’ efforts in Wisconsin during an interview on Friday with CNN’s Don Lemon.
“In 2016, President Trump won the election by the same rules. 2020, President Biden won the election by the same rules,” Thomsen said. “And to adopt Senator Johnson’s attack would be a complete unlawful act, unheard of. It really is astounding.”
Other efforts to relitigate or undo the 2020 election persist in Wisconsin.
A former state Supreme Court justice is continuing a Republican-ordered investigation into the election.
And this week, Wisconsin GOP state Rep. Timothy Ramthun moved to advance a resolution to decertify Biden’s victory – despite an analysis by lawyers on the state’s non-partisan legislative council, noting that there is no mechanism in state or federal law to do so.
Trump issued a statement, cheering on Ramthun’s move.
Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, however, said lawmakers would not take up the resolution, citing the legislative council analysis.
Wisconsin election observers say the current debate may be a warmup for a takeover of the state’s election system ahead of 2024 and the next presidential election.
“As a matter of law, given that we now have a Democratic governor, this is mostly talk,” Robert Yablon, an election law expert at the University of Wisconsin’s law school, said of the debate over who runs elections.
“If there is unified Republican control in Wisconsin after 2022,” he added, “the fact that these discussions are being had now is a strong signal that (Republicans) would very much try to move in the direction of replacing the elections commission with more unilateral, partisan control.”
CNN’s Jeremy Herb and Kelly Mena contributed to this story.