A bad week for ‘endangering democracy’

Originally published by the Wisconsin Examiner, December 17, 2021.

Over the past week, Republicans — including a state senator who chairs the Senate’s election committee — have blasted Speaker Robin Vos’ 2020 election probe as a “charade” that is harmful to democracy. Newspaper editorial boards have also offered  harsh criticism, including the Capital Times, which characterized the ‘audit’ as “looney,” and an “epic train wreck.”

The outrage directed at Vos and his appointed leader of the partisan election investigation, former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman, began with a Monday panel hosted by national election monitors, but also including former county clerk and current state Sen. Kathy Bernier (R-Chippewa Falls). Panelists spoke out about the need to protect election administrators and officials who are getting threats and other harassment because Republicans, including former President Donald Trump and Gableman, have asserted that the election was stolen.

The panel moderator and host was David Becker, the executive director of the Center for Election Innovation & Research (CEIR) based in Washington D.C. — a group that secures pro-bono attorneys and others to assist election officials who are being harassed, threatened, subpoenaed or even prosecuted. Joining Becker and Bernier were three national election experts, including a Republican and a Democrat who are strong partisans in their political work on the presidential level and equally strong in their shared belief that the election was fair and accurate and that continued efforts like Vos’ represent a danger to democracy.

Becker stressed that professional election officials are facing serious threats despite conducting a secure, accurate election due to the “ongoing delegitimizing of elections in this country,” and “false doubts about the outcome and integrity of the 2020 election” being spread in Wisconsin and elsewhere. He said that many groups in many states — including groups incentivized to find fraud — have “found zero evidence of fraud that could overturn the election results.”

“It’s been over 420 days since that election, an election by any objective measure which was the most secure, transparent and verified election in American history,” Becker said. “We had more paper ballots that can be audited than ever before … including here in Wisconsin. We had audits of those ballots — more audits than ever before in American history — all of which confirm the results.”

Vos responded by telling reporters that he plans to extend the disparaged audit that was supposed to end in the fall, and that he may need to allot additional taxpayer money beyond the $680,000 he had already allocated to Gableman’s crusade seeking fraud in the 2020 election — one that former President Donald Trump bullied Vos into launching.

“I never in my wildest dreams predicted the level that Democrats would go to try to block and throw up roadblocks to everything that we’re doing,” said Vos. The probe he launched is unusual in part because neither Democrats nor the public have much information about how it is being conducted or what it has found, since it is being conducted primarily in secret. Vos told the Associated Press that any additional money needed is because Democrats — presumably including the mayors whom Gableman threatened to jail after  they said they would testify in public but not in private as he wanted —  were not cooperating, adding, “But that’s on the Democrats, not on us.” He also accused Democrats of “McCarthyite tactics” for objecting to Gableman’s highly paid staff, which is filled with election result deniers, including some who went to court to try and overturn Wisconsin’s election results.

Attorney General Josh Kaul, who is representing the Wisconsin Elections Commission in court as Gableman tries to force its director to testify in private, also pushed back on the investigation this week, telling Wisconsin Public Radio, “The results of this investigation are not going to be credible. And we are wasting taxpayer money on this investigation. And so the sooner it comes to a close, the better.” He also praised Bernier for calling for it to end soon, adding,  “I wish we would see more Republicans speaking out.”

Bernier’s most recent stand
Sen. Bernier got a lot of news coverage and spoke more forcefully at Monday’s event than she previously had in public, but it was not the first time the senator had spoken out against what she dubbed the “charade” of an elections audit being run by Gableman and Vos. She’s also taken on the lopsided hearings held by the Assembly Committee on Elections and Campaigns run by Rep. Janel Brandtjen (R-Menomonee Falls) and conducted her own informational hearing as chair of the Senate elections committee, to explain exactly how elections are conducted and to show, as she put it, that “It is not easy to fraudulently vote in the state of Wisconsin.”

Bernier — while no longer an election official — faced harassment after her comments and posted on Twitter Thursday: “I’ve been contemplating retirement. But, I may rethink it. Right wingers calling for my resignation is motivation!” The tweet received a chorus of positive responses encouraging and thanking the senator.

She said she finds praise from Democrats “rather embarrassing” when she gets their text messages, but ends up with “numerous” calls to her office after her Republican colleagues send out press releases or post on Facebook “complaining or whining” about her statements on elections. “These made up things that people do to jazz up the base is just despicable. And I don’t think any elected legislator should ever play that game.”

Bernier sees the election fraud rhetoric as harmful to her party. “I am a Republican. I vote conservative. I want Republicans to win and for our good policies to continue forward,” she said during the panel presentation. “This is a charade — what’s going on with this constant drumbeat of all the massive voter fraud. There’s a simple explanation for almost everything that people accuse election officials of doing.”

The former clerk listed conspiracy theories and then busted myths with facts on how elections work in practice, from the type of paper used for ballots to actions a poll worker can and cannot control. For example, she countered the idea that there could be a ballot dump, stating that “every single ballot has a voter associated with it on the poll list.” There cannot be copies made, she continued, because there are timing marks on ballots and they are printed on special, heavy-weight paper.

Bernier said that her colleagues are acting under pressure from Trump “to only look at politics and not at policy.” She said she’d given “my friend Speaker Vos a lot of latitude with the Gableman thing” but believes it’s inciting trouble.

“Mr. Gableman is coming to my county and I will attend that meeting, along with my concealed carry permit to be perfectly honest, because it keeps jazzing up the people who think they know what they’re talking about, and they don’t,” said Bernier. “And so I think my advice would be to have Mr. Gableman wrap up sooner rather than later. Because the longer we keep this up, the more harm … we’re going to do for Republicans. I’m doing this for a selfish reason. I am a Republican, I vote conservative, I want Republicans to win and for our good policies to continue forward. This is a charade.”

She ended her initial remarks with a tremor in her voice, saying. “No election is perfect. But there is no evidence of intentional malfeasance. No evidence that the election in 2020 wasn’t accurate.”

Using, perhaps unawares, a quote Vos often cites, she continued, “When Benjamin Franklin came out of the convention, and our Constitution was created, he was asked, ‘What kind of government do we have?’ And he said, ‘A republic, if we can keep it.’” Bernier paused and her eyes teared up as she added, fiercely, “We’re in jeopardy of losing it.”

Harassing election officials
The core purpose of the panel discussion was to discuss the harassment and threats nationwide against election officials. Central to the group coming to Wisconsin was a focus was Megan Wolfe, the nonpartisan head of the Wisconsin Elections Commission, who a slew of Republicans have called on to resign because she has factually stated that the election was secure, safe and accurate. Both Democrats and Republicans on the panel praised her work and commitment and railed against Republicans who are demanding she resign.

Becker said Wolfe is “widely respected all over the country,” and pointed out that she is the incoming president of the National Association of State Election Directors. “Despite that, there are doubts that are being inflamed by the loser of the presidential election and others,” said Becker. “And this is causing a great crisis in our democracy.”

Matt Masterson, an election security expert under the Trump administration in the Department of Homeland Security, complimented election officials as “doing heroic work” in an election that has been “run, certified, litigated, audited, recounted … more than a year ago.”

He pulled no punches describing the Vos/Gableman probe and others like it, repeatedly using the word “grift.”

“It is following a known mis- and disinformation playbook where one creates doubt and distrust about the process in order to build on the narratives, to cause confusion, to cause emotional response in order to gain financial and political success. A grift.”

Masterson said those “pursuing this grift” have learned lessons from mistakes in Arizona where they used “a big top approach” bringing the circus to the civic center and letting people see what they were doing, which revealed it was a fiasco. He described the Wisconsin effort as more decentralized, including not only the Gableman investigation, but also door-to-door “sedition” canvassing reinforcing the narrative, as well as trying to achieve “through intimidation and threats what cannot be achieved legislatively” in an attempt to drive out Wolfe and other election officials and dismantle the Wisconsin Election Commission. By inciting harassment, Masterson warned, legislators are driving out election workers with institutional knowledge.

Another panelist, Republican Ben Ginsberg, who has been involved in GOP presidential elections for 40 years and noted that he was the lawyer for Scott Walker’s presidential campaign, praised election administrators. As the Republican co-chair of the Election Officials Legal Defense Network, he said, “Our basic message to election officials is we have your back.”

Ginsberg stressed he remains a conservative Republican and is alarmed by what is happening in Wisconsin — taking elections “away from the pros and giving it to the pols.” Politicians’ criticism of the election have led to clerks and officials who are not doing the bidding of one party being threatened with everything from physical harm to criminal prosecution.</p><p>“We are here today, because Wisconsin has found itself really in the middle of a harmful and disturbing national trend that involves the intimidation of election officials — the people who are supposed to call balls and strikes in our elections,” said Ginsberg. “It’s part of an attempt, overall, that’s quite dangerous. It’s an attempt to exert partisan influence — if not control over — the casting and counting of votes. And that would come at a great cost to the democracy.”

The Republican end game
It was clear the Assembly was headed down a path of election conspiracy promotion back when Vos tossed slightly more moderate Rep. Ron Tusler (R – Harrison) out as elections committee chair and replaced him with Brandtjen, one of the most far right-wing members of the Legislature who told constituents in a missive that Trump won the 2020 election.

Brandtjen began the push for a more extensive audit, criticizing Vos for not going far enough, backed by other Trump followers unhappy with him who rallied to “toss Vos.”  He launched what they called an “Arizona-style forensic audit” on the eve of the Wisconsin GOP convention in May after being chastised by Trump, tapping Gableman to conduct a taxpayer funded audit, later joining Trump on his plane to show he was fully on board.

Bernier spoke to what she thought would happen to legislative Republicans in Wisconsin who were continuing down this path, advising them to “wrap it sooner rather than later,” because “the longer we keep this up, the more harm” it will do to the party.

Ginsberg agreed. He said that “as a Republican, I think this is bad for Republicans and the electoral future of the party.” His take was that calling legitimate elections illegitimate becomes a “self-fulfilling prophecy” that ends with no one having faith in the elections.

The focus on fraud depresses turnout by convincing people not to vote. “It is Republicans who are making these charges, and that’s going to depress our turnout in elections, Republicans are going to suffer at the ballot box,” he said.

Ginsberg warned, “What goes around comes around,” opining that a vicious cycle of challenging elections has no winners. Criticizing President Joe Biden, he said that by obsessing about the last election, Republicans are missing opportunities to tell voters what they would be doing instead right now as Biden pushes Build Back Better and other policy initiatives.

“This is a time when Republicans should be rising to the fore with constructive, conservative policy and solutions,” he said, stating that polls show signs of people disillusioned with the president and the Democratic Party that controls the federal government. He said that if Republicans successfully “tilt the playing field” by manipulating elections in the short term, it won’t last forever, so he hopes that Republicans will take a good look at the harm their attacks on elections and those who administer them are causing to their party — as well as democracy.

“Amid all the charges and threats and investigations and reports, what’s particularly important to note is there still has been no hard evidence of systemic election fraud, despite the decibel levels,” said Ginsberg. “It’s true here in Wisconsin. And what impacts me, as a conservative Republican, is that we owe it to the democracy to have substantive evidence behind such charges before tearing down something as fundamental as faith in elections.”

Wisconsin Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Wisconsin Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Ruth Conniff for questions: info@wisconsinexaminer.com. Follow Wisconsin Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.