They Cried Foul On The 2020 Election — Then Advised Wisconsin's Top Election Officials

Right-wing activists were selected by election officials to give input on policy that could have big implications for 2024.
Election denier groups are advising Wisconsin officials on poll observer rules.
Election denier groups are advising Wisconsin officials on poll observer rules.
Maddie Abuyuan / HuffPost; Getty Images

When Wisconsin’s top election officials were considering drafting new rules for election observers earlier this year, they formed an advisory committee comprising representatives from the major parties, nonpartisan clerks from across the state — and right-wing activists who called the legitimacy of the 2020 election into question.

The Wisconsin Elections Commission, the state’s top election body, which is made up of three Democrats and three Republicans, is expected to consider the committee members’ input on draft rules for election observers — volunteers who watch the voting process and can raise concerns to polling place managers — when it meets next month.

But the committee, which gathered for more than 12 hours in total across two meetings in March and June, carried the marks of a brutal 2020 election. True the Vote, the conspiracy theory organization that falsely claims an army of “2000 mules” stole the election for Joe Biden, was represented on the committee by a local Republican who previously had said Wisconsin elections were “being conducted by lawless groups of individuals.” Another seat at the table went to the Wisconsin Election Integrity Network — a local affiliate of a national, Donald Trump-backed group of the same name whose leader has said of Democrats, “The only way they win is to cheat.”

Given the committee’s relatively small size — fewer than 20 people attended each meeting — the representatives from these organizations and others sympathetic to them constituted a significant presence. (True the Vote’s national leader, Catherine Engelbrecht, acknowledged the panel’s importance in a video post last month. “We have had the opportunity to make requests and petitions for process changes in a very small environment,” she said, adding that her group was making “great headway.” The organization did not respond to a request for comment for this story.)

And with Wisconsin set to repeat its role as a crucial swing state in 2024, election observer rules could end up playing a significant part, especially given the possibility that the GOP will once again nominate the man whose claims of a stolen election have inspired widespread lies and conspiracy theories about voter fraud.

The committee has received little press attention, and its meetings were low-key and bureaucratic, with few raised voices and a staff attorney guiding the discussion.

But its conservative members have sought wide authority to monitor voters across the state, including allowing observers to stand so closely behind check-in tables that they would be able to see voters’ personal information, giving observers nearly free rein to wander around polling places, and granting observers access to retirement home residents’ bedrooms as they vote. At times, representatives of the Democratic Party and public interest groups pushed back on those proposals, and a “draft rule” created at the committee’s first meeting showed that the group hadn’t reached a consensus on many issues.

Still, multiple people on the committee told HuffPost that they felt it was worthwhile to include organizations that had called into question the legitimacy of the last presidential election.

“The issue with observer rules isn’t about what people believe; it’s about their behavior at the polls,” said Ann Jacobs, a Democrat on the Wisconsin Elections Commission, which approved the committee and chose its members. “Whether you believe that Italian thermostats programmed by Che Guevara manipulated an election, or whether or not you just want to go and see democracy in process, observer rules need to apply to everyone,” she added, referencing conspiracy theories that foreign actors hacked the 2020 election.

The committee’s meetings raised crucial questions ahead of the 2024 presidential election: How should election administrators handle the supporters of a candidate accused of conspiring to overturn election results — and what kind of welcome will those supporters’ input receive?

“Whether you believe that Italian thermostats programmed by Che Guevara manipulated an election, or whether or not you just want to go and see democracy in process, observer rules need to apply to everyone.”

- Ann Jacobs, Wisconsin Elections Commission

‘Trying To Find Evidence Of Fraud’

Wisconsin law includes just a few paragraphs on election observers, and details are sparse or nonexistent.

Clerks and their chief inspectors “may restrict” observers to “certain areas,” but the law only states that those observation areas should be between 3 and 8 feet from check-in and registration tables. Observers can be removed for an act that “disrupts” a polling place — but the law offers no more guidance than that.

The law also requires the Wisconsin Elections Commission to promulgate rules for election observers consistent with the statute, but the commission’s attempts to go through the formal rule-making process have failed — most recently in October, when rules couldn’t be passed due to a deadlocked vote along party lines. Instead, the commission’s website has a brief “Rules-at-a-Glance” brochure that summarizes the commission’s “interpretation” of the law.

Without formal rules, it’s often up to municipal clerks — all 1,851 of them, including some who do the job part time — to interpret the law themselves. (Unlike most other states, Wisconsin elections are run at the city and town level, rather than by counties.)

And the boundary between privacy and transparency can be fuzzy. Election observers, who in Wisconsin can include any member of the public except candidates, have at times been accused of voter intimidation and suppression.

The New York Times noted in 2012 that a county Democratic Party chairman accused three poll observers, including one from True the Vote, of bogging down a polling place at Lawrence University with so many challenges — such as objections to certain forms of ID — that it slowed the pace of voting, causing some in line to give up.

The already existing tensions came to a near-breaking point with Trump’s claims before and after the 2020 election that Democrats had used measures meant to halt the spread of COVID-19, like early voting and ballot drop boxes, to steal the election. Those accusations fueled a surge of interest in observers searching for evidence of Trump’s claims — including from groups like True the Vote and the Election Integrity Network, which have at times worked with the former president.

“The observers that have come into the picture since 2020 are trying to find evidence of fraud, evidence that a voter shouldn’t be there. I think that’s been the shift,” said Erin Grunze, a voting and elections consultant for Common Cause Wisconsin who previously led an election observation program at the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin.

Trump said earlier this month that he would cite True the Vote’s false claims about the 2020 election as part of his defense against charges that he conspired to steal a second term under false pretenses. Engelbrecht said the group looked forward to the opportunity to “tell the full story.” And the nationwide Election Integrity Network is run by Cleta Mitchell, a prominent election attorney who was on the phone with Trump when the then-president demanded that Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger “find” the votes Trump needed to win the state. EIN’s parent organization, the Conservative Partnership Institute, employs former Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows as senior partner, and received $1 million from Trump’s political action committee last year.

An attorney representing Donald Trump gives instructions to poll observers before the presidential recount vote for Dane County on Nov. 20, 2020, in Madison, Wisconsin.
An attorney representing Donald Trump gives instructions to poll observers before the presidential recount vote for Dane County on Nov. 20, 2020, in Madison, Wisconsin.
Andy Manis via Getty Images

Wandering Observers

Despite the ill feeling created by Trump’s false voter fraud claims in the last election, the advisory committee worked productively and found some common ground.

Several committee members agreed that observers should be allowed to greet people in polling places, something they apparently had seen observers being thrown out of polling places for doing. In their June meeting, Ken Brown, the former Racine County GOP chair who previously sued to stop the city of Racine from using a mobile voting van to reach people who couldn’t get to the polls, found an unlikely ally in Anita Johnson of Souls to the Polls, a group focused on Black churchgoers’ participation in elections, when he made an impassioned plea for observers to have the right to access polling place chairs and bathrooms.

“All I can say, Ken, is ‘wow,’” Johnson remarked, according to video and transcripts of the meeting.

Still, on issues that touched on Trump’s 2020 claims — for example, that election observers had been too sidelined to see the voting process — a debate emerged between voter privacy and observer access.

The Wisconsin Election Integrity Network, representative Julie Seegers said, “would like to see observers to be able to roam, staying 3 feet away from any process that would interfere with elections.”

Ken Dragotta, True the Vote’s representative on the committee, argued that “roaming is a necessary part of observing,” and that setting aside limited areas for observers was akin to “a penalty box” and “as offensive as can be.”

Several Democratic and nonpartisan participants put more weight on the need to protect voters’ privacy and make sure voters feel safe.

“The big concern was that, if observers were able to roam around, that poll workers would lose track of where they were, and there’d be more potential of intimidation of voters, or people not knowing who these people were that were milling around the polling place,” said Eileen Newcomer, who currently manages the Wisconsin League of Women Voters’ election observation program.

Observing The Bedroom

Things grew more heated when it came time to discuss voting in care facilities, such as retirement homes — a major point of contention after the 2020 race. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the Wisconsin Elections Commission determined that “special voting deputies,” or election workers trained to assist voters in these facilities, would not be dispatched. Instead, residents got absentee ballots, and the commission told facility staff members that they could assist residents in requesting and marking their ballots.

That decision has become infamous to Trump supporters, thanks to a partisan investigation by a former state Supreme Court justice, Michael Gableman, who made a false claim about “many nursing homes’ registered residents voting at 100% rates.” Trump, of course, ran with the erroneous finding, which also made its way to the advisory committee.

In particular, some members referenced interview footage Gableman aired during a hearing last year that featured older voters who appeared to be confused. During the same hearing, Gableman suggested that legislators consider the “decertification” of the election, a legal impossibility.

Near the end of March’s meeting, Constitution Party representative Mark Gabriel echoed Gableman’s claims. “Some of these facilities have patients, residents, who don’t even know the names of their children, you know?” he said.

“I’ve heard a lot about respecting people’s privacy and all of this, and medical situations, but how about some voter integrity?” Gabriel added. “How about having observers being able to see what is going on?” Other than in 2020, election observers have traditionally been allowed to watch voting occur in shared common rooms of nursing homes and care facilities. (The Constitution Party of Wisconsin did not respond to a request for comment.)

Separately, Seegers argued in the June meeting that nursing home residents’ bedrooms should be treated as polling places when election workers are present, meaning observers should be allowed as close as 3 feet away from voters.

Others pushed back. Barbara Beckert, director of external advocacy at Disability Rights Wisconsin, stressed that people with disabilities retain their voting rights unless a judge declares them incompetent to vote. A 2023 review from Dane County identified 95 people who’d voted in previous elections after being adjudicated incompetent to vote, though the nonprofit news outlet Wisconsin Watch subsequently reported that cases it reviewed “pointed to human error, rather than coordinated or intentional illegal voting.” Biden won Dane County in 2020 by a margin of 181,385 votes.

“The idea of having people coming to someone’s bedroom with observers and watching them vote, I find very troubling,” Beckert told HuffPost. She said she was “very concerned” about calls to Disability Rights Wisconsin’s hotline from care facility staff members who reported receiving threatening calls amid the allegations of widespread election fraud.

“The idea of having people coming to someone’s bedroom with observers and watching them vote, I find very troubling.”

- Barbara Beckert, Disability Rights Wisconsin

Despite these concerns, Beckert said she thought it was worthwhile to invite the election deniers and skeptics to join the committee.

“I continue to hope that having a forum where you can have accurate information provided, and have civil discourse, that that may lift all boats,” she said. “Maybe it got them to question some of what they heard previously, but we wouldn’t have had an opportunity to have that dialogue if they weren’t included in the committee.”

Politics And Election Administration

Claire Woodall-Vogg, the nonpartisan executive director of Milwaukee’s election commission — the state’s largest city has its own election bureaucracy — faced a slew of death threats in 2020, and marveled at how “civil” the committee was.

“People who are in touch with election administration and know how it operates aren’t nearly as polarizing as what we see in the outside world,” she told HuffPost.

Woodall-Vogg has some history with Dragotta, the True the Vote representative on the committee. During the contentious 2020 recount that the Trump campaign pursued in Wisconsin, she recalled, Dragotta had been a “voice of reason” among Republicans in Milwaukee, reining in unruly observers. Yet just a few weeks after that process, Dragotta alleged during a legislative hearing that “today in Wisconsin, some of the election process is being conducted by lawless groups of individuals and officials that have gone from exploiting our election laws to now openly disregarding them.” (Reached by phone, Dragotta asked HuffPost to send him questions by email. He did not respond to that email.)

“I have to separate: There’s the politics, and then there’s the election administration,” Woodall-Vogg said. “That’s the only way I’ve learned to cope.”

Still, she said the ongoing election-related conspiracy theories make her nervous.

“You’re seeing people support a candidate who would have stolen an election,” Woodall-Vogg said. “I think it is very scary. Anyone who has a history background, and has read anything about history and politics and government, would be a little frightened.”

Had the committee’s progress — its basic decency and overall adherence to democratic norms — offered any hope in that regard?

“No,” she responded quickly, chuckling a little. “Not at all.”

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