At 5:01 p.m. /b>. on Thursday, Dec. 2, Tim Ramthun was sitting in his living room with the TV on when his cellphone rang. He turned to his wife of four decades, Carolann. “Oh, the president’s calling,” he told her. She scoffed. “Hello, Mr. President,” Ramthun said to the caller. “This is Representative Ramthun. May I help you?” Carolann still didn’t believe him, until she heard the voice on the other end and almost fell out of her chair. She started recording a video of her husband, a junior member of the Wisconsin state Assembly, receiving praise from the 45th president of the United States.
Ramthun wasn’t surprised by Donald Trump’s call. A few weeks earlier, Trump had left a message on his work phone at the state Capitol at 6:30 in the morning. Trump had wanted to thank Ramthun for his continued efforts to overturn the 2020 election results, something Trump proceeded to do later that day in a written statement praising Ramthun for “putting forward a very powerful and very popular, because it’s true, resolution to decertify the 2020 Presidential Election in Wisconsin based on the recently found absolute proof of large scale voter fraud that took place.”
Now, with his wife recording the conversation, Ramthun listened as Trump asked what he could do to be helpful. He offered to endorse Ramthun, and Ramthun knew how powerful that endorsement could be running for reelection to the Assembly or seeking a higher office. Trump wasn’t the only conservative luminary to dangle an endorsement: Mike Lindell, the CEO of MyPillow and a leader of the growing election-fraud movement in America, had twice said he’d back Ramthun. Ramthun told Trump he appreciated the pledge of support, but he wanted the former president to know that the fraud he believed he’d uncovered, and the conspiracy that tied it together, required all of his attention at the moment. First, he would pass his resolution to decertify the last presidential election, and then he would help other states follow his lead.
“If one state does this, I think others will follow,” he remembers telling Trump.
“You’re my kind of guy,” Trump replied.
More than a year later, the Republican Party remains obsessed with Trump’s defeat in 2020 and finding ways to sow doubt on that result, if not reverse it. In Arizona, conservative lawmakers and activists spent millions of dollars on a discredited “forensic audit” of every ballot cast in the state’s largest county. In Pennsylvania and Georgia, GOP legislators and candidates for office have called for their own Arizona-style reviews. There are at least 21 candidates for secretary of state across the nation who have challenged the 2020 election result. Trump leads this movement to mainstream the so-called Big Lie, calling the election “rigged” and arguing that Vice President Mike Pence had “the right to change the outcome,” and the GOP has, with few exceptions, marched in lockstep with him.
Nowhere is this crusade to subvert the 2020 election result more on display than in Wisconsin. Even though Republicans there do not control all the levers of power — the governor, Tony Evers, is a Democrat — they have launched a multifront effort to cast doubt on the 2020 election, intimidate local officials, and, in Ramthun’s case, throw out the state’s presidential-election result.
Lawyers aligned with the Republican Party have filed suit after suit seeking to roll back reforms that made it easier to vote in the pandemic. A secretive investigation run by a conservative former judge with a controversial past has issued dozens of expansive subpoenas, demanded closed-door testimony of mayors and clerks, and sought jail time for those who didn’t cooperate. GOP candidates and elected officials have gone so far as to demand the elimination of the state’s bipartisan election commission — a body that Republicans created seven years ago — and potentially give the GOP-led Legislature the power to control elections. “Wisconsin is the ground zero for the fights over elections right now,” says Paul Nolette, a political-science professor at Marquette University.
This effort did not start in earnest until after the 2020 election, when Trump’s defeat became official, and it has yet to turn up any evidence of widespread fraud or a conspiracy to rig the outcome. For the most part, Republicans waited until months after the vote to challenge the decisions made by election officials, mayors, and local clerks to ensure access to the ballot box in 2020, such as the use of drop boxes, accepting private grant money to safely and effectively administer the election, and mailing absentee ballots directly to voters living in nursing homes. “One of the weapons in the election-subversion arsenal is having post-hoc arguments about what the rules should’ve been, when in fact, election contests have to be built around the rules as they existed at the time,” says Bob Bauer, an election-law expert and co-chair of the Center for Election Innovation and Research’s Election Official Legal Defense Network. “The attempt to change the rules after the fact is the election-subversion campaign.”
With an eye toward the 2022 midterms and 2024 presidential election, Wisconsin Republicans now want to overhaul their democracy for the supposed sins of 2020. But the debate over how to do that has pitted Republicans against one another, with party leaders navigating an irate party base and MAGA-style lawmakers who believe the state can’t focus on the next election until it has “fixed” the last one. This winter, I spent a week in the state and spoke with dozens of people about the challenges to the 2020 election and the attacks on election workers, voting policies, and more.
In Wisconsin, as in other states, the energy in the conservative movement burns hottest among those voters who believe the Republican-controlled Legislature should empower people like Ramthun and throw out Biden’s 2020 victory. Moderate Republicans have responded by ostracizing Ramthun or blasting their party’s descent into a post-fact cult of conspiracy theorists. “A lot of them are stuck between having to follow what is now the party line in Trump’s party and trying to tamp down the most extreme calls for overturning a democratic result,” professor Nolette says.
It’s also created a bizarre, up-is-down environment in which a fringe lawmaker like Ramthun finds himself lauded by Trump, the party’s leader, and at the same time shunned by fellow Republicans in Wisconsin for his crusade to throw out the last presidential vote.
For the first 150 years or so of its existence, Wisconsin earned a reputation as a laboratory of sorts, a testing ground for policies cooked up by liberals and conservatives. Think unemployment insurance and Social Security, school choice and voter-ID laws. Love them, hate them: Thank (or blame) Wisconsin. Deep political divides have always cleaved the state’s politics — this was, after all, the home of progressive icon Fighting Bob La Follette and notorious red-baiter Joe McCarthy, the land of Republican hero Tommy Thompson and LGBTQ pioneer Tammy Baldwin. And for the past two decades, Wisconsinites have grown used to statewide elections decided by razor-thin margins and a perennial battleground-state status. But if not for Florida’s hanging chads in 2000, the entire world might have converged on Wisconsin instead, where Al Gore won by 5,700 votes. Through it all, Wisconsinites saw themselves as a model for clean, open government, a kinder counterpoint to the brutal machine politics of Richard Daley’s Chicago, 90 miles to the south.
For the past decade, however, Wisconsin politics have polarized in much the same way the nation has. Scott Walker’s gubernatorial election in 2010 and his subsequent “divide-and-conquer” assault on labor unions, a surgical gerrymander that has locked in GOP majorities with no end in sight, Wisconsin Republicans, including former Speaker Paul Ryan and former White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, steering the party through the Trump presidency — all of it has cemented Wisconsin’s place as a bastion for the Republican Party. If you want to understand where the GOP might be headed, watch Wisconsin.
“Just as conservatives used the state of Kansas a decade ago as the testing ground for the most reactionary fiscal policies they could come up with, Wisconsin is the place that conservatives have chosen to be their testing ground for the most reactionary policies related to democracy and government,” says Jeff Mandell, a progressive lawyer who works on election litigation and who founded Law Forward, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting democracy in Wisconsin. “And it is not an accident.”
In late January, I meet with Tim Ramthun in his office in Madison, and we talk for nearly two hours about his push to overthrow the 2020 presidential vote in Wisconsin. Ramthun, a father of two and a grandfather of four, turns 65 in March. Bearded and intense, with an eye for pastel-colored blazers, he works out of a cramped office that feels more like an attic in the state Capitol in Madison. A small Christmas tree stands sentry on an old radiator. Above the tree hang three artifacts matted in red, white, and blue, and framed in Trumpian gold: The press release announcing his resolution to decertify Wisconsin’s 2020 presidential election, the resolution itself, and Trump’s statement praising Ramthun. Below the documents is a gold plaque that reads: “Ramthun Office/Saving America.”
He speaks in a mix of technical jargon and religious fervor as the words tumble out of him: “full forensic physical cyber audit” and “privileged resolution,” Dominion and Lindell and someone named Dr. Frank, the Book of Genesis and state statutes 6.84 and 6.875 and 12.13. Ramthun expects you to keep up because the time to act is running out, and when he wants to emphasize a point, he flips an imaginary coin in the air and catches it on the back of his hand like a referee. Forget Democrats and Republicans, he says. Forget Trump and Biden. This isn’t about personalities, he says. It’s about process, it’s about data, it’s about facts. He speaks with such conviction that, if you didn’t know any better, it almost starts to feel real. He tells me, “I have to do everything to get them to” — he flips his imaginary coin — “see the light.”
Ramthun came late to the cause. He traces his journey toward the truth to a March 10, 2021, hearing of the state Assembly’s campaigns and elections committee. He listened as the witnesses, all of them selected by the Republicans who ran the committee, made accusations of illegality and fraud about the way the city of Green Bay ran its 2020 election. His mind reeled as a lawyer named Erick Kaardal, who had previously represented Kanye West’s campaign in the state, told the committee that “a private corporation” funded by Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg had funneled millions of dollars into the state’s five biggest cities, which Kaardal referred to as the “Wisconsin Five.” The money had acted as bribes to those cities to get out the vote for Joe Biden, and no one had noticed it at the time.
A few months later, Ramthun attended a gathering in Sioux City, Iowa, of all the major election-fraud activists, hosted by MyPillow’s Mike Lindell, and returned full of conviction that his state needed to do more to ensure integrity in the 2020 election.
Ramthun tells me he texted the speaker of the Wisconsin Assembly, Robin Vos, and urged Vos to do more to root out fraud. Vos brushed him off. So he sent out a series of press releases titled “Let There Be Light”; he talked about fraud in the “Ramthun Report,” the periodic videos he made for his constituents and posted on Facebook. He asked the state Legislature’s in-house lawyers what options he had as an elected official to formally claw back Wisconsin’s 10 Electoral College votes; none, came the response. He sent the opinion to former President Trump’s legal team, and three days later, Boris Epshteyn, a former White House aide to Trump, sent back a five-point memo saying that the nation was in “unchartered territory” and that “decertifying votes that were illegally certified would be valid.”
Ramthun also received an eight-page analysis from John Eastman, the same lawyer who wrote the infamous memos arguing for how Pence could overturn the election result on Jan. 6, 2021. Eastman’s memo for Ramthun, dated Dec. 30, 2021, argues that if there was “acknowledged illegality” in an election, then the result of that election was rendered null and the state Legislature had the power to pick the electors “as it sees fit.” A third memo, dated Jan. 8, 2022, from a group called the Amos Center for Justice and Liberty, also supported Ramthun’s position, citing the “wide-spread election fraud … that occurred in the largest cities of the state and throughout Wisconsin.”
Epshteyn tells Rolling Stone that Ramthun “is undoubtedly correct in his undertaking: the 2020 election in Wisconsin should absolutely be decertified, just as it should be in Arizona, Pennsylvania, Georgia and Michigan.” (A Trump spokeswoman, John Eastman, and the Amos Center for Justice and Liberty didn’t respond to requests for comment.)
Ramthun felt that he had the legal justification he needed, and still his colleagues wouldn’t act. The Republican leadership, he says, treated him like a pariah: “I had indifference and I had obstruction, and it was pretty much everywhere.” When he traveled the state, he urged the citizens he met to ask their representatives to join his cause; if they refused, then the voters should replace them. Soon afterward, Vos stripped him of his lone full-time staffer. Then, on the evening of Jan. 25, he stood up on the Assembly floor and introduced a resolution to decertify Biden’s victory. His measure had no co-sponsors, and the Republican majority leader, Jim Steineke, vowed to kill the measure, but Ramthun had managed to persuade the Republican leadership to treat it as legitimate.
Outside the state, he was quickly becoming a conservative hero. Kari Lake, a Republican candidate for governor in Arizona, praised his resolution. The Gateway Pundit, a conspiratorial website, published the video of Ramthun’s floor remarks and erroneously said that Wisconsin had in fact “voted to withdraw” its 10 electors for Biden. Sitting across from him in his office, I ask Ramthun if he felt alone in his fight. Quite the opposite, he says. He was never alone. “I’ve got the Lord with me. I’m surrounded by friends. And I’ll tell you,” he adds, “I’ve got the entire state behind me.”
At one point in the conversation, he grabs a binder off a bookcase and drops it on the table in front of me with a thud. Six paper inches of email after email from people in Wisconsin and from outside the state thanking him for his “testicular fortitude” and “tireless dedication” to overturning the election. “For some reason we have Republicans in our state and local governments who are turning a blind eye to the fraud that is, and has happened,” a couple from St. Cloud wrote.
Ramthun knew he had Trump’s support. And now he had developed a following across the state. “They want me to run for governor,” he says, and when I ask if he’s considering it, he responds immediately: “Yes.”
Wisconsin has the most decentralized election system of any state in the union. Nearly 1,900 clerks at the municipal level, most of them part-time, register voters, program voting machines, run polling places, hire poll workers, mail out absentee ballots, count the votes, recount them (sometimes), and report the results to the state’s election commission. From one vantage point, the decentralized nature of Wisconsin’s system is seen as a strength: It would require a conspiracy of Nixonian proportions to hack or tamper with the overall vote when the voting and counting is so dispersed. But it also means that turnover is a constant headache. A survey by the University of Wisconsin–Madison a few years ago reported a nine to 12 percent turnover among clerks each year. Meagan Wolfe, the nonpartisan administrator of the Wisconsin Elections Commission, told me that the rate of churn averages out to 12 new clerks a week who need training on how to run a safe and secure election.
No amount of training could have prepared election officials for the cataclysm that arrived in early 2020. As scattered news stories about a flu-like virus sweeping through China grew into a full-blown pandemic in the U.S., Wisconsin’s election workers found themselves in a uniquely precarious spot. Three weeks after the Trump administration declared a national health emergency in response to the spread of the coronavirus, Wisconsin was scheduled to hold its presidential primary on the first Tuesday in April. It would be the first major election in any state since the pandemic officially began. Gov. Evers tried to postpone the election, but the Republican-controlled Legislature challenged his plan, and the state’s conservative-leaning Supreme Court sided with the Legislature, ruling the night before election day that the election would proceed after all. With a massive shortage of poll workers and a reduction in the number of polling places in Milwaukee, voters stood in line for hours. “I quickly recognized the amount of trust from the public that we were going to have to build back after the election in April,” says Claire Woodall-Vogg, executive director of Milwaukee’s election commission.
Election officials decided on the fly how best to adapt in time for the next set of elections, in August, and the November general. At the center of these debates was the Wisconsin Elections Commission, which oversees all elections in the state. By law, the WEC has six commissioners, three Democratic and three Republican appointees. Created in 2016, it replaced a previous body, the Government Accountability Board, which had been run by retired judges and touted as a model for nonpartisan oversight. But after the GAB opened two secret investigations related to then-Gov. Scott Walker, one of which led to a Walker donor paying the largest civil forfeiture to the state’s election regulator in history, Republicans in the Legislature replaced the agency with a more partisan model. “The GAB actually did its job, and so the Legislature said, ‘Let’s get rid of it,’ ” says Ann Jacobs, a Democratic appointee and chairwoman of the WEC.
Early in the pandemic, the WEC’s six commissioners agreed they needed to adapt certain voting rules. One was a requirement that so-called special voting deputies make two visits to nursing homes before an election to assist elderly residents in filling out and submitting their ballots. Only after those two visits took place could clerks mail absentee ballots to nursing-home residents. In normal times, poll watchers from the two political parties would accompany the voting deputies to ensure equal treatment. But deputies weren’t deemed essential workers by the state or federal government, and nursing homes feared endangering residents by letting the deputies and poll watchers come and go. “A lot of the nursing homes or senior living facilities didn’t want people to come in,” says Sara Bruckman, deputy clerk-treasurer for the town of Fox Point and president of the Wisconsin Municipal Clerks Association.
By a 6-0 vote, the state election commission voted to waive the in-person-visit requirement for the voting deputies; instead, clerks could mail absentee ballots to nursing homes right away. As Mark Thomsen, a Democratic appointee on the commission, saw it, the WEC had to help clerks find a way to keep voting accessible to those seniors even in the midst of a pandemic. “If we wouldn’t have acted, we would’ve disenfranchised thousands of senior citizens,” Thomsen says. Twice more in 2020, by 5-to-1 votes, the WEC voted to continue its guidance that the voting deputies didn’t have to visit nursing homes, given the potential public-health risk to residents. The WEC solicited public comments before its first vote about the deputies, and for all three votes the WEC deliberated in public, livestreamed meetings before voting. Thomsen, the WEC commissioner, says there was no opposition or backlash in the moment to the commission’s decision.
At the local level, clerks scrambled to respond to surging demand for absentee voting and find the resources to adapt to a pandemic-year election, while grappling with chronic delays created by the U.S. Postal Service. Woodall-Vogg says her office blew through most of its budget for 2020 in April alone, creating a possible crisis for the rest of the year. Federal grant money was available, but it came with restrictions, Woodall-Vogg says. The state Legislature offered no help, ending its 2020 session without appropriating any additional money for elections. “We just didn’t have resources,” says Bruckman.
Around that time, someone in the Milwaukee mayor’s office approached Woodall-Vogg and asked her if she would apply for grant money from a nonpartisan nonprofit out of Chicago, the Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL), that funded election administration work in dozens of states. Funded in large part by Facebook CEO Zuckerberg’s charity, CTCL offered grants to municipalities that needed it. “The mayor’s office said, ‘Put together your wish list of absolutely everything you’d need to make voting safe and accessible for the fall, and we will submit for this grant,’ ” Woodall-Vogg recalls.
In the summer of 2020, Wisconsin’s five biggest cities — Milwaukee, Kenosha, Madison, Green Bay, and Racine — combined their requests for money into a single, 21-page document. The cities asked for a total of $6.3 million. They intended to use this money, they wrote, to run safe elections during the pandemic and educate voters on how to vote in a challenging moment, which included encouraging people to vote absentee. The document also stressed that the cities would use the money to “be intentional and strategic in reaching our historically disenfranchised residents and communities.” The document makes no mention of partisan affiliation or party loyalty; it does state a desire to increase absentee voting.
To Woodall-Vogg’s surprise, she got everything she asked for. When she later realized she needed additional funds, she asked for more from CTCL and received that, too. She used the money to purchase twice as many high-speed vote tabulators for counting absentee ballots; increase the wages for election workers to $15 an hour; pay higher postage costs; upgrade the security systems for the city’s ballot drop boxes; send out mailers about how to vote absentee; and rent additional vehicles for election workers to use. “The way we spend our money is entirely transparent,” she says. “We can account for every dollar.”
In the moment, the steps taken by election clerks and officials to adapt to the pandemic went unchallenged or caused little controversy. The Wisconsin Elections Commission continued to issue guidance. CTCL gave more than $10 million in grants to 217 recipients in Wisconsin. The bulk of the money went to the five most-populous cities, which are heavily Democratic and home to most of the state’s Black and Hispanic citizens, but smaller counties received funding as well. Marathon County, which had the highest number of localities awarded a CTCL grant, supported Trump in 2020, as did the county of Marinette, with the second-highest number of grants, according to a review by the Wisconsin State Journal.
It wasn’t until September 2020, six weeks before the general election, that the first sign of what was coming appeared. A small, newly created nonprofit called the Wisconsin Voter Alliance filed a lawsuit in federal court for an injunction that would block the state’s five largest and most diverse cities — but none of the other municipalities — from accepting CTCL’s money. Citing an obscure part of state law, the suit alleged that the cities had violated the law by committing the crime of election bribery.
A judge swiftly dismissed it, writing that the complaint had no basis in law. The election took place soon afterward, and Biden carried Wisconsin by about 20,000 votes. Under state law, the Trump campaign had the opportunity to request a full, statewide recount of every paper ballot. “There is no greater forensic audit than a statewide paper-ballot recount,” says David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research.
Trump’s campaign chose not to do so. Instead it asked for a post-election recount of just the two largest counties by population, Milwaukee and Dane, which were Democratic bastions and home to the vast majority of the state’s minority voters. Those recounts confirmed Biden’s victory. A post-election audit of the state’s voting machines also found no evidence of wrongdoing. It was only then that a campaign of a different nature began.
Ron Heuer is the president of Wisconsin Voter Alliance. A short, wiry man in his seventies, he looks like Dr. Anthony Fauci’s better-looking brother, a comparison Heuer would resent given his dislike of Fauci. When I meet him for dinner in Green Bay on a frigid evening in January, he tells me to take my mask off, even as the omicron variant rips through the state. (In fairness, not another soul in the restaurant is wearing a mask, either.) Heuer worked as an executive in the tour wholesale business for decades, traveling the world and making a “great living.” When he retired, he moved to Kewaunee County, Wisconsin, located on shores of Lake Michigan, and got involved in local Republican politics, taking over as the local GOP chairman.
In the fall of 2020, Heuer was contacted by a lawyer named Tim Griffin, who worked for a conservative law group in Chicago, the Thomas More Society, that defended pro-life activists and challenged orders that shut down churches during the pandemic. Griffin asked Heuer if he wanted to launch a new group focused on elections in Wisconsin. Heuer tells me he was no expert on the subject, so he started to read. “I’m one of those people who will drill down and do my research,” he says. He also talked to the lawyer Erick Kaardal about the CTCL grants. (Kaardal did not respond to requests for comment.)
The more Heuer learned, he says, the more outraged he became. He read the June 2020 grant proposal by the five cities to CTCL asking for $6.3 million, highlighting the passages he found most troubling: “our strategies and plans to encourage and increase absentee voting”; “communities of color, senior voters, low-income voters”; and “Our five cities share the desire to assist as many residents as possible with casting ballots before Election Day.” To Heuer, the document was a smoking gun, evidence that “Democrat cities” were using CTCL’s money — “Zuckerbucks,” he called it — to turn out Democratic voters and swing the election. When I tell him that a plain reading of the document gave me the impression that the cities wanted the money to help as many people vote as possible, he scoffs. “Don’t be naive,” he says. “They’re using that money to accentuate the Black and Latino vote. When you’re saying you’re going to get the people of color out to vote, isn’t that biased?” Heuer would later tell me that this scheme to rig the vote in big cities was a conspiracy planned several years before the 2020 election. He says, “This was in the place a long time ago.”
Heuer and Kaardal filed their election-bribery lawsuit in September 2020; the case was dismissed. Undeterred, Heuer and Kaardal filed another suit in D.C. federal court seeking to block the election results in Wisconsin and four other states — a claim that a judge dismissed in a stinging opinion. Heuer’s group also took aim at another target, the Wisconsin Elections Commission, arguing that the organization’s guidance on voting in nursing homes broke the law. “They have no idea what they’re doing,” Heuer says of the commission, and he called its nonpartisan administrator, Meagan Wolfe, a “very dangerous person.”
Tiana Epps-Johnson, the founder and executive director of CTCL, tells Rolling Stone that her organization is nonpartisan and “backed by Republicans, Democrats, and nonpartisan officials.” Every “legitimate applicant” that asked for money received it, and more than half of the group’s election-administration grants nationwide went to election offices that serve fewer than 25,000 registered voters, she says. As for claims of election bribery or improper influence, she adds: “Every judge — conservative, liberal, and two Republican-appointed Supreme Court Justices — rejected these kind of arguments, with one judge issuing a strongly-worded opinion that labeled these challenges a ‘conspiracy theory.””
These allegations of fraud and wrongdoing started on the fringes in late 2020, stoked by activists like Heuer and lawyers like Kaardal. But in the chaotic aftermath of the election, as Trump and his lawyers searched for any legal argument or shred of evidence to keep him in office, Wisconsin Republicans seized on Heuer and Kaardal’s arguments. Party leaders such as U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, who had initially said the election was fair, now backed away from those proclamations. Janel Brandtjen, the new chairwoman of the state Assembly’s campaigns and elections committee, invited Kaardal to testify at a March 2021 hearing and gave him a microphone to spread his baseless theories without the committee even hearing from the subjects of Kaardal’s allegations. Brandtjen praised the witnesses for bringing to light potential wrongdoing in the election and called for further investigation by the Legislature.
Ben Ginsberg, a veteran election lawyer who worked for the Republican National Committee and several GOP presidential campaigns, says the legislators and activists taking issue with rule changes and outside grant funding needed to have done so before the election for their complaints to have merit. “The criticism of the WEC’s decisions was something that could’ve been valid if they were raised at the time,” he says. As for the CTCL money, Ginsberg says a more functional government would fund its elections so that private nonprofits didn’t have to, but noted that no one has come forward with evidence that CTCL money made it possible for illegal voters to vote. “The allegation apparently is that you don’t want all legal voters to vote, which is not a good place for a party to be,” he says.
The evidence for a rigged election may have been nonexistent, but the budding election-fraud movement fomented the idea that the state needed to take action to stop voter fraud. While Republicans introduced legislation to crack down on drop boxes, Speaker Vos, who had urged his fellow Republicans to move on from the 2020 election, faced pressure from his base to launch an Arizona-style audit. Instead, he hired a former state Supreme Court justice, Michael Gableman, to run a special investigation into possible election crimes that would conclude by the end of October 2021. Gableman’s choice raised some alarms: At a Trump rally in November 2020, he claimed the election was stolen, and went on to hire staffers for the investigation who had also amplified election-fraud misinformation. Documents show that Gableman and his team’s investigation has ballooned into something far larger, sending expansive subpoenas to clerks and voting-machine companies, while threatening to jail mayors for refusing to sit for depositions about the 2020 election. Vos allocated $676,000 in taxpayer money to fund Gableman’s investigation, but the final cost will likely run higher.
Charlie Sykes, a never-Trump conservative writer and former talk-show host in Wisconsin, says the Gableman investigation shows how Vos’ attempts to appease his base have spiraled out of control. “He really thought he was going to be the guy who was going to grow the alligator in the bathtub and it wasn’t going to bite him,” Sykes says.
Last fall, the Republican campaign to challenge the integrity of the 2020 election turned to a new target: the Wisconsin Elections Commission. A review of the 2020 election by the state’s Legislative Audit Bureau released in October turned into the next flashpoint in the battle over voting. The nonpartisan bureau concluded that the election was safe and secure, but also made dozens of recommendations about improvements needed. Republicans treated those suggestions as proof of incompetence or malfeasance by the commission.
Soon afterward, the sheriff of Racine County announced he had referred five of the six commissioners to the local district attorney for criminal charges over their 2020 directives about nursing-home voting. GOP legislators now demanded the resignations of administrator Wolfe, her deputy, and five of the six commissioners. The only commissioner not under scrutiny was Bob Spindell, a Republican appointee and party loyalist. (Spindell was also one of the 10 fake electors for Trump sent to D.C. by state Republicans.)
I meet with Wolfe in her office and ask about the campaign to make her step down. She has worked her entire career in elections, starting at the Government Accountability Board; in 2019, the Republican-led state Senate voted unanimously to confirm her as WEC administrator. In person, she comes across as a pure elections nerd, her laptop festooned with voting-themed stickers, her expression brightening when she talks about voter databases or the auditing of voting machines. As the nonpartisan chief of the Wisconsin Elections Commission, Wolfe implements the guidance of six board members and ensures the agency runs smoothly. She is a public servant, not a partisan operative, and she says that makes her a convenient target. “A lot of the things that people are upset about weren’t my decision,” she says.
Still, she can’t help but feel frustrated by the ire directed at the commission by Republicans, considering that it was Republicans who created the commission. “Our commission is operating exactly as it’s designed under law. … These decisions had to be made in public meetings, by a bipartisan commission, with four votes,” she says. “That’s exactly what’s happening.” Now, the WEC has become a campaign bogeyman among Republicans, and two leading GOP candidates for governor have called for dissolving the WEC entirely.
Lawmakers and longtime political observers say they see the conservative push to change voting and punish election officials as part of a larger strategy to help win more seats in the 2022 midterms and create a more favorable environment in the next presidential race. If the GOP defeats Gov. Evers and holds onto its majorities in the Legislature, which it is expected to do thanks to heavy gerrymandering, then they can make all the changes they want to elections and voting. “This is an all-hands-on-deck moment here,” Evers tells me. “If I weren’t able to veto bills without the Republicans overriding my veto, we’d be Georgia right now. We’d be Texas. We’d be Arizona.”
Wisconsin Republicans say they’ve heard from voters who are disgusted by the 2020 election, and plan to hold Democrats accountable. “There will be retribution down the road,” state Rep. Brandtjen tells me in her office. There’s an icy certainty in the way she says this, and her use of the word “retribution” catches me off guard. What does she mean by that, I ask.
Brandtjen stares straight at me. “There’ll be retribution for people because they don’t think there’s fair elections.” She goes on, “You see what happens to countries when they don’t think they have fair elections. Look at Venezuela. It falters the republic.”
The threat to democracy in Wisconsin isn’t coming from a lawless election commission, hacked voting machines, or illegal ballots coming out of nursing homes. It comes from a political party that united around suspicions and lies, and sought to bend reality to its will. Wisconsin is more than a laboratory for new policies and bold ideas; it’s a trial for whether democracy can survive at all.