There will now be three investigations—by the Legislative Audit Bureau, the Assembly and the Senate—into how November 2020 elections were run by 1,835 municipal clerks and 72 county clerks and overseen by the state Elections Commission.

Where are the three likely to lead one year from now, when we are only days away from the November 2022 elections for the U.S. Senate, Congress, governor and Legislature?

Let’s consider each of the separate investigations.

The only one conducted by non-partisan professionals was the Audit Bureau’s report, made public last week.

In it, auditors questioned administrative guidance given local clerks by the Elections Commission, found “sloppy”—the word used by Republican Sen. Kathy Bernier, a former Chippewa County clerk—errors by local officials and recommended 18 changes in election laws to the Legislature and 30 changes in Elections Commission practices.

The Audit Bureau found no evidence of improper vote totals, however. Auditors sampled 60 voting machines and found that all but one had given accurate vote totals; incomplete documentation made it impossible to determine the accuracy of one machine.

“Despite concerns with statewide elections procedures, this audit showed us that the election was largely safe and secure,” said Republican Sen. Robert Cowles, co-chair of the legislative committee that ordered the audit in February.

President Biden beat former President Trump by about 21,000 votes in the 2020 election—less than 1% of the 3.2 million votes cast.

Because the Audit Bureau report is the only investigation completed so far, it’s important to consider some of its recommendations to the Legislature:

  • Specify exactly what information a witness certifying that someone properly voted absentee must provide and clarify how municipal clerks can legally correct errors or missing information about those witnesses.
  • Clarify whether so-called “drop boxes,” where voters can drop off absentee ballots, are legal.
  • New rules governing the conduct of special voting deputies sent to assisted living centers and nursing homes.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos named former Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman to run the Assembly’s probe of how the 2020 election was conducted.

Although Vos approved subpoenas for documents and local officials as part of Gableman’s investigation, city officials refused to comply and courtroom duels continue over what documents Gableman will see and who he will interview.

Democratic Atty. Gen. Josh Kaul sued, seeking to have the Assembly investigation shut down.

But on this, though: Gableman at some point will give Republicans who control the Assembly a report that he will insist documents mismanagement by both some local clerks and the Elections Commission.

The Assembly will respond by passing new rules for the 2020 elections—changes likely to go beyond those Democratic Gov. Tony Evers has already vetoed.

Three top Senate leaders—Majority Leader Devin LaMahieu, President Chris Kapenga and Asst. Majority Leader Dan Feyen—then said the Audit Bureau report documented Elections Commission failures “which undermined the free, fair, and transparent elections Wisconsinites deserve,” justifying a Senate investigation.

“When a state agency refuses to follow the law, especially one overseeing our elections, it should concern every Wisconsinite—regardless of [their] party,” added LaMahieu. “We will assess the full impact of WEC’s deficiencies.”

Vos, Kapenga and Republicans senators Pat Testin and Dewey Stroebel also last week called on Elections Commission Administrator Meagan Wolfe to resign, citing a Racine County sheriff’s report questioning how votes were cast in a nursing home.

Senate Republicans are also targeting Madison election officials who balked at their requests to review election documents.

The Senate and Assembly investigations will be separate, although both houses are run by Republicans.

What’s likely one year from now?

Republicans legislators will have passed new election laws and changes to Elections Commission procedures. The Commission struggles because of how Republicans structured its oversight board five years ago: three Republicans and three Democrats.

Evers will again veto GOP-passed bills, saying they would disenfranchise voting rights.

He will repeat what he told a New York Times reporter: “I would’ve never guessed that my job as governor, when I ran a couple years ago, was going to be mainly about making sure that our democracy is still intact in this state,”

But what of the 18 important legislative changes in elections laws recommended by the nonpartisan Audit Bureau? In the brutal pre-election partisan landscape, will any of them become law?

Steven Walters began covering the Capitol in 1988. Contact him at stevenscotwalters@gmail.com

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