Records Obtained by American Oversight Show Continuing Influence of Election Deniers on Wisconsin Lawmakers

Records obtained by American Oversight shed more light on the level of influence that prominent election deniers have with lawmakers in Wisconsin. The documents, released in response to multiple public records requests to the office of state Rep. Janel Brandtjen, contain conversations with supporters of false claims of widespread voter fraud — including a 2022 email in which an aide to U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson asked a discredited conservative activist for his legal opinion on a voter registration effort.

In October 2022, during the final weeks of Johnson’s reelection campaign, his deputy chief of staff asked Peter Bernegger — an election denier previously convicted of fraud — about the legality of a Democratic get-out-the-vote effort aimed at Black voters. The email, obtained by American Oversight and reported on recently by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, shows that the deputy chief of staff, Julie Leschke, had received a tip about “a ‘Protect our vote’ black SUV with a picture of Congressional Black Caucus leader John Lewis on its side” that was part of several vehicles “trying to ‘get everyone to register to vote.’” 

Leschke asked Bernegger whether he was “aware of this going on” and whether it was legal. Bernegger forwarded the email to Brandtjen soon after receiving it. A spokesperson for Johnson told the Journal Sentinel that Bernegger “has never advised the senator on election matters,” and added that Johnson “has fought for transparency in election integrity like Mr. Bernegger.”

In the months following the 2020 election, Bernegger scanned and examined ballots cast in Wisconsin in an attempt to unearth supposed evidence of voter fraud. In February 2022, during testimony before the state Assembly’s elections committee, which was then chaired by Brandtjen, Bernegger falsely claimed that fraudulent ballots had been cast in the 2020 election. Two months later, he was fined by the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC) for filing multiple frivolous complaints about “fake voters.”

The records obtained by American Oversight also show discussions between Brandtjen and Bernegger about the search for evidence of fraud in Wisconsin’s elections. On Oct. 20, 2022, Bernegger sent Brandtjen an email in which he alleged that a Dominion Systems voting machine in Wisconsin had insecurely transmitted election results to the nonprofit WiscNet, which provides internet to Wisconsin schools and other institutions. 

But it appears that rather than sharing this claim with WEC or other authorities, Brandtjen’s office issued a press release the next day stating that she had “received credible information” that Wisconsin voting machines were connected to “an unofficial IP address belonging to WiscNet” and calling for “an immediate post-election forensic examination of these voting machines by independent cyber experts.”

Days later, Brandtjen reached out to WiscNet directly. On Oct. 25, WiscNet responded to Brandtjen’s claims with a letter that stated that “the WiscNet offices in Madison did not receive voting transmissions, nor did the staff authorize such transmission or configure voting equipment.”

Other records include conversations between Brandtjen and Harry Wait, another election denier who leads the Wisconsin-based conservative group HOT Government. In September, Wait was charged with fraud and identity theft for illegally requesting absentee ballots in what he said was an attempt to prove the possibility of voter fraud. 

In one July 27 email, which Wait sent to Brandtjen and other elected officials, including Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Racine Mayor Cory Mason, Wait explained that he fraudulently requested absentee ballots in the names of Vos and Mason to expose vulnerabilities in the system. Wait also sent that email to other election-fraud activists, including conservative lawyers Erick Kaardal and Daniel Eastman, who had both been involved in a series of lawsuits seeking to overturn the 2020 election results in Wisconsin, as well as Ivan Raiklin, an Army Reserve lieutenant colonel who was involved in the plan to pressure former Vice President Mike Pence not to certify the votes. Previous records obtained by American Oversight shed light on a recurring meeting of high-profile election deniers hosted by Raiklin.

Eastman, who in lawsuits filed after the 2020 election falsely claimed that Democrats had committed fraud to win, replied to Wait’s email: “Frankly, this is stunning and proves our hypothesis that massive absentee fraud has been run by algorithm for almost a decade in Wisconsin.” He added, “We are happy to run any data search needed on the fractal programing system for you to help detect the hundreds of thousands of fake voters needed to pull this off.”

American Oversight also obtained an undated set of text messages in which Wait sent Brandtjen a picture of a letter addressed to him about his “legal issues regarding the obtaining of ballots under other parties names.” 

In response, Brandtjen messaged, “Good Lord is looking out for you.” Wait responded, “Yes, and so are your supporters.” Brandtjen also offered to send Wait money, which he declined.

In November, the Wisconsin Assembly Republicans barred Brandtjen from attending closed caucus meetings, citing her “continual issues from the past.” Read more about other records American Oversight unearthed showing Brandtjen’s communications with election deniers after the 2020 election here.