Wisconsin Republican pushes “illegal” scheme to jail election officials, causes rift in GOP

A GOP gubernatorial candidate is calling to throw out the 2020 election results in Wisconsin more than a year later

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published February 22, 2022 2:33PM (EST)

Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (Andy Manis/Getty Images)
Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (Andy Manis/Getty Images)

Wisconsin Republican lawmakers are seeking to jail election officials while a GOP gubernatorial candidate is calling to throw out the 2020 election results in the state more than a year later.

Michael Gableman, who is leading a review of the 2020 election ordered by state Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, on Friday filed a petition asking a court to jail the head of the state's Elections Commission, several election officials, and the mayors of Green Bay, Madison, and Racine, according to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

Gableman asked a judge to jail Ann Jacobs, the Democratic chairwoman of the bipartisan Elections Commission, Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway, Green Bay Mayor Eric Genrich, Racine Mayor Cory Mason, the city clerks of Madison and Green Bay, and others targeted in his probe unless they agree to closed-door depositions.

The officials have said that the facts should not be hidden behind closed doors and that they would be willing to speak with Gableman publicly before a legislative committee. Gableman has sought to interview the officials for months about grants cities received from the Center for Tech and Civic Life, a nonprofit that donated millions to help local election officials administer elections amid the pandemic. The group has become a focal point of pro-Trump election conspiracy theorists because it received a large donation from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan.

Multiple recounts, court rulings, a legislative audit, and a study by a conservative group have all dug into the election results in Wisconsin, where President Joe Biden won by more than 20,000 votes, and found no evidence of widespread fraud or irregularities. Republican lawmakers in the state have continued to cast doubt on the election results and are using taxpayer dollars to fund Gableman's review.

RELATED: Wisconsin GOP wants to seize control of elections — and even send commissioners to jail

Rhodes-Conway, the Madison mayor, told the Journal-Sentinel that the bid to jail elected officials shows that Gableman's probe has "gone off the rails."

"It's an awfully bold move for someone we don't even know is authorized to conduct an investigation," she said.

Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul, a Democrat, last year filed a lawsuit seeking to block Gableman's subpoenas, arguing that the review had no legislative purpose, were too broad, were unenforceable under the state constitution, and improperly sought to depose officials in private. A judge last month refused to immediately block the subpoenas but said she may do so if Gableman seeks to jail election officials.

Gableman was initially expected to wrap up his review last fall but the probe has continued to stretch for months. Vos said last week that Gableman is expected to publish a report this month, though the taxpayer-funded litigation over the review is expected to stretch for months.

Election experts and members of both parties have dismissed Gableman as a "partisan hack," according to the Associated Press, after he stoked conspiracy theories about Trump's loss before being appointed to lead the probe, and his subpoenas have been littered with "spelling errors and incorrect names" and requests for "data that cities don't have."

Gableman, a former state Supreme Court justice who traveled to Arizona to observe their failed "forensic audit" and attended an election conspiracy symposium hosted by MyPillow founder Mike Lindell, acknowledged last fall that he did not have a "comprehensive understanding of how elections work."

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Republican state Sen. Kathy Bernier, a former election clerk, slammed Gableman for trying to "falsely accuse election officials of cheating," calling his review a "charade." Genrich, the Green Bay mayor, asked a judge last month to sanction Gableman for making inaccurate statements to the legislature.

"It's obviously totally amateurish," former Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle, who also served as attorney general, told the AP. "I don't know how the Republicans are looking at this now but after the way he's conducted it I bet they are wishing he would just go away and this would all disappear."

But Trump sycophants in the state are only going further down the election conspiracy theory rabbit hole. The Republican-controlled legislature is expected to pass more than a dozen new voting restrictions that would make it more difficult to cast a ballot in response to recommendations made by Gableman. Some Republican officials have called to dissolve the state's bipartisan election commission, which was created by Republicans. And state Rep. Tim Ramthun, who is running for governor, has called to decertify the 2020 election results, drawing praise from Trump.

"This is a real issue," Ramthun, who has frequently appeared on former Trump adviser Steve Bannon's podcast, told the New York Times. "We don't wear tinfoil hats. We're not fringe."

But even Vos, the Republican Assembly leader, dismissed Ramthun's demand to decertify the election.

"It is impossible — it cannot happen," he said in a radio interview last week. "I don't know how many times I can say that."

Kaul told CNN that the proposal would be "illegal and unconstitutional."

The increasingly extreme proposals from Ramthun and other Republican candidates seeking support from Trump's base have sparked something of a civil war inside the party. Trump supporters at town halls have increasingly targeted criticism at Vos and other GOP leaders they feel are not doing enough to oust Biden from the White House even though he has appeased election conspiracists with dubious investigations for months.

"It's simply a matter of misdirected anger," Vos complained to the Times. "They have already assumed that the Democrats are hopeless, and now they are focused on those of us who are trying to get at the truth, hoping we do more."

The conservative Wall Street Journal editorial board on Monday highlighted the state Republican Party's "suicide watch," warning that the election extremists could "split Wisconsin conservatives" and result in Democratic wins.

"If that's what ends up happening, Mr. Trump won't regret it for a second, because he never does," they wrote. "Wisconsin Republicans will regret it for years."

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By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's managing editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

MORE FROM Igor Derysh

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