American Oversight has obtained new documents that shine a light on Wisconsin officials’ ongoing efforts to cast doubt on the results of the 2020 election, including their attacks on the bipartisan Wisconsin Elections Commission.
The records contain communications sent to state Rep. Janel Brandtjen — who chairs the State Assembly’s elections committee and has falsely claimed that Donald Trump won in Wisconsin in 2020 — from Erick Kaardal, the election-denying lawyer whose law firm is subleasing office space from Michael Gableman’s ongoing partisan investigation. Other documents include emails received by state Rep. Joe Sanfelippo’s office about how to remove members and staff of the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC), as well as communications that reveal WEC frustration with the Legislative Audit Bureau’s lack of transparency regarding a separate election audit. The documents were turned over in response to multiple public records requests filed by American Oversight between October and December 2021.
Official recounts as well as independent reviews and audits have confirmed that no widespread voting fraud occurred during the 2020 election in Wisconsin or elsewhere. But Republican lawmakers and Donald Trump allies have continued to push for more election reviews, such as the partisan investigation being led by Gableman that is currently underway in Wisconsin.
In February 2021, the same month the WEC released its report on its audit of voting machines, a Republican-led Assembly committee voted to authorize a separate audit to be conducted by the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau (LAB). The LAB’s final report, released in October 2021, found that Wisconsin elections were “safe and secure,” but included 30 recommendations for election process reform that Republicans have since used to push for tougher voting restrictions and to attack the WEC, which was created in 2015. The report was also criticized for containing several errors, and members of the WEC decried the LAB’s failure to share its initial findings with commissioners, which prevented them from being able to make corrections or respond before the final report was published.
The documents obtained by American Oversight include an April 2021 letter from WEC Chair Ann Jacobs in which she asked State Auditor Joe Chrisman to cite the LAB’s legal authority for withholding information from the commission and for instructing nonpartisan commission staff not to share information with commissioners. “Prohibiting the Commissioners from reviewing the initial findings places the Commissioners in an untenable position of being responsible for the WEC’s policies and statements but being unable to direct the agency response when it is delivered to the Legislature,” Jacobs wrote.
Other emails show Jacobs attempting over multiple weeks in May 2021 to speak with Chrisman about the audit.
Following the release of the LAB report and its recommendations, Republicans have ramped up their attacks on the WEC. On Nov. 3, 2021, Racine County Sheriff Christopher Schmaling recommended criminal charges for five of the six commissioners, alleging election fraud related to guidance approved in the spring of 2020 for absentee voting in nursing homes. Several top Republican lawmakers called for the resignation of the WEC’s nonpartisan administrator, Meagan Wolfe, and U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson called for the Republican-controlled Legislature to take over federal elections in the state and to ignore WEC guidance.
While Vos said earlier this month that he opposes dismantling the WEC and that there is “zero chance” the Legislature will take over the 2024 presidential election, election experts remain concerned about the ongoing attacks on the commission and efforts across the country to strip power from nonpartisan election officials.
Another vocal critic of the WEC is Sanfelippo, who is vice chair of the Assembly’s elections committee. American Oversight recently obtained records from Sanfelippo’s office that show his office may have explored options for removing WEC members, potentially even well before the November 2020 election.
In one email dated Feb. 17, 2020, Peggy Hurley, an attorney with the state’s Legislative Reference Bureau, responded to questions from Sanfelippo about the process for removing government board members for “acting or intending to act contrary to state law.”
An aide for Sanfelippo followed up on the email in November 2021, asking about which WEC employees were classified (meaning they can only be removed for cause) and which were unclassified. “Most specifically, the Elections Commission Administrator?” the aide asked. Hurley responded that the administrator is an unclassified employee, and that “impeachment [in the state Senate] may be an option for removing a board member and, possibly, an administrator.”
Sanfelippo’s aide then inquired about WEC administrative staff. Hurley responded that staff members are classified, but said that she was “not sure” whether the commissioners “are considered state employees at all.”
In May 2021, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos announced that he intended to launch another election investigation, later appointing conservative lawyer Michael Gableman — a former state Supreme Court justice who had previously said the 2020 election had been stolen — to lead the investigation.
Gableman’s investigation was given a $676,000 budget and was set to end before the end of the year. But on Dec. 14, Vos announced that the investigation would extend into the new year and would cost more, blaming Democrats and city officials for fighting Gableman’s controversial subpoenas. At the end of that month, Gableman issued additional subpoenas to the WEC and various city technology officials.
Late last year, American Oversight obtained documents that show Gableman had been working with Erick Kaardal, a lawyer who in December 2020 sued to invalidate Biden’s win in Wisconsin and other states. Kaardal’s law firm is currently subleasing office space from Gableman’s investigation, according to other records we obtained, and has also filed legal challenges to grants provided to cities for election administration during the pandemic.
Communication records from state Rep. Janel Brandtjen — who has criticized Gableman’s investigation for not going far enough and has called for a more aggressive, Arizona-style “audit” — indicate that she has also been in touch with Kaardal. In emails sent to Brandtjen in November 2021, Kaardal alleged that the state’s election system, WisVote, was vulnerable to tampering by third parties.
In one email, Kaardal told Brandtjen that “backups from the election time period (6 months before, 6 months after) will be key to get your hands on.” Another email included a link to a job listing for a software security administrator in Madison, Wis., and contained an attached memo, signed by “KL,” with information the sender said “may be of interest to you as you explore possible information security violations.” The sender’s identity is unknown.
Like Gableman, Brandtjen has also focused on the election-administration grants to cities, which came from the Center for Tech and Civic Life, an organization largely funded by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan. Last summer, Brandtjen had issued subpoenas for election materials that were ultimately rejected when Vos refused to sign them, and she was listed as a plaintiff in a lawsuit Kaardal filed against the city of Racine for failing to produce records. More recently, Brandtjen requested election data from the past 20 years, which Jacobs called a “ridiculous request” and which Wolfe said would cost “upwards of $100,000” and require coordination with the Legislature.
Other records we obtained show that Brandtjen and her daughter both attended a July 2021 “Honest Elections Project Academy” hosted in Salt Lake City by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative group that provides model legislation to state governments. The Center for Media and Democracy has reported that the “academy” provided Republican legislators with strategies on voter suppression. The records we obtained include Brandtjen’s flight information and her personal invitation to the “exclusive” event, as well as several PowerPoint decks.
American Oversight will continue to investigate efforts to cast doubt on the 2020 election and to appease Big Lie activists in Wisconsin. You can view our most recent public records requests and investigation updates here.
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