By: Kayla Burris
The 2020 presidential election was a test of Wisconsin’s election system. Like other states, Wisconsin faced numerous legal challenges to the ways votes were cast and counted. However, as a battleground state in a tight race, calls of fraud were particularly loud. Wisconsin also conducted a recount in two of its counties and Republican groups continued calling for audits long after Biden was sworn into office.
The Republican-controlled legislature agreed that the fraud claims had merit and, voting along party lines, ordered an audit to “be conducted by the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau.” Democrats were largely opposed to the audit, with Democratic Governor Tony Evers accusing Republican leaders of “drinking the Kool-Aid” and pushing baseless conspiracy theories about the election.
Finally, almost a year after the 2020 presidential election, in October 2021, the Audit Bureau issued its results. The audit found no indication of widespread voter fraud or illegality. The audit found that “just four” people possibly voted twice—significantly less than the 20,000 votes former President Trump needed to win Wisconsin. Speaking about the audit results, Republican state Senator and co-chair of the legislature’s audit committee, Robert Cowles, tweeted that “despite concerns with statewide election procedures, this audit showed us that the election was largely safe and secure.”
Despite the lack of fraud, the audit did not hand Wisconsin a perfect report card for its election administration. It made 30 recommendations for improvements for the Wisconsin Elections Committee (WEC) and included 18 issues for the legislature to consider. The recommendations largely involved ways to improve election administration and to make the process more efficient, with suggestions related to: (1) training election administrators, (2) maintaining registration records, (3) collecting and counting of absentee ballots, (4) processing ballots, (5) maintaining voting equipment, and (6) establishing audit, recount, and complaint procedures.
Among the recommendations are suggestions to ingest voter information from other state agencies to verify voter information, determine how election officials should handle mistakes in voter names and addresses, provide a way to quickly establish new polling places in case of emergency, and to clarify whether drop boxes are allowed.
Given the administrative nature of many of the recommendations, the audit should provide the legislature with potential reform measures that they could implement, likely with political compromise. However, as with many political issues in Wisconsin, the path may not be so straight-forward.
In August 2021, the Republican-controlled legislature passed six bills related to elections—all of which were vetoed by the Democratic governor. Like many other proposals around the country, the bills aimed to add additional procedural hurdles for voting. If passed, the bills would have, among other things:
- limited third party collection of absentee ballots;
- required that individuals submit absentee ballot applications (including proof of identification) for each election, and would have made it a felony for municipal clerks to issue absentee ballots contrary to the statute;
- shortened the time in which nursing home voters could cast their ballots, and required facility administrators to contact family members so that they could supervise the nursing home voter while they cast their vote;
- required observation areas to be no more than three feet from where ballots are examined and counted;
- prohibited counting ballots with incomplete information, even those with only minor errors;
- required municipalities to retain recordings of their canvassing proceedings, if they choose to stream or broadcast such proceedings at all.
The Democratic governor criticized the bills, saying “[a]s long as I’m governor of this great state, anti-democracy efforts like these will never see the light of day.” Republicans countered, arguing that they were trying to “close loopholes” and establish more standardized procedures.
To further complicate matters, the Bureau’s audit is not the only probe into Wisconsin’s 2020 election. Former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice, Michael Gableman, is conducting a separate review of the election. The former judge’s review has been much more partisan, with Gableman, a conservative, alleging that there is “‘compelling evidence’ that laws weren’t followed,” and Democratic officials condemning the review for its partisan nature and embarrassing gaffes. Depending upon the nature of the results, this review may overshadow the Bureau’s recommendations.
Only time will tell whether the two sides will be able to use the audit feedback to craft meaningful election reform legislation.