MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled Senate was expected to vote Thursday to fire the battleground state’s top elections official — a move that has been denounced by Democrats as illegitimate and is expected to spark a legal battle.
The nonpartisan administrator of the Wisconsin Elections Commission, Meagan Wolfe, has been the subject of conspiracy theories and threats from election skeptics who falsely claim she was part of a plan to rig the 2020 vote in Wisconsin. Republican leaders have vowed to oust her before the 2024 presidential election.
Election observers have expressed concern that replacing Wolfe with a less experienced administrator or continuing to challenge his position could create more instability in a high-stakes presidential race where campaign workers expect to face relentless pressure, harassment and threats.
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 hopes of preventing a nomination from reaching the Senate for confirmation.
A Senate refusal would result in her firing, but without a four-vote majority to appoint Wolfe, a recent state Supreme Court ruling appears to allow her to remain in place indefinitely as a replacement.
Senate Republicans moved forward regardless, with Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu saying he interpreted the committee’s 3-0 vote as a unanimous nomination. Nonpartisan lawyers for the Legislature and Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul both disputed that interpretation, saying the law is clear that an elections administrator must be appointed by at least four commissioners.
Wolfe did not attend a Senate committee hearing on her reappointment last month, citing a letter from Kaul that said 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 denial movement to repeat widely debunked claims about the 2020 election.
The Republican-led Elections Committee voted Monday to recommend Wolfe’s firing.
Biden defeated Trump by nearly 21,000 votes in Wisconsin in 2020, a result that withstood two partial recounts, an impartial audit, a review by a conservative law firm and numerous state and federal lawsuits.
Many Republican grievances against Wolfe concern decisions made by the elections commission and implemented by Wolfe, as she is required to do by law. In addition to carrying out the elections commission’s decisions, Wolfe helps lead Wisconsin’s more than 1,800 local clerks who actually administer elections.
Wolfe became head of the Elections Committee in 2018, after Senate Republicans rejected her predecessor, Michael Haas, because he had worked for the Government Accountability Board. Republican lawmakers dissolved the agency, which was the Election Commission’s predecessor, in 2015 after investigating whether former Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign illegally worked with outside groups.
Since the 2020 elections, some Republicans have floated the idea of abolishing or overhauling the Election Commission.
Wolfe has worked at the Elections Commission and Accountability Committee for more than 10 years. She also served as president of the National Association of State Election Directors and president of the bipartisan Electronic Registration Information Center, or ERIC, which helps states maintain accurate voter rolls.
Harm Venhuizen is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.