Evers clearly benefits from a rearview focus on the 2020 election. The latest Marquette University Law School poll raised him by four points over Cliffish, his closest rival, even as Biden’s statewide approval slipped to forty percent. Evers, who has a real charisma (and plays a great role while waiting for the election results), has already raised more than ten million dollars.
“If you lose, 2024 will look a lot different,” Evers told me. We will have more restrictions on voting. There will be fewer people able to vote. Basically people would be denied the right to vote, and that would affect the presidential election.” What bothered Evers the most about the post-election investigation was “the nursing home bullshit.” Evers used to work himself in a nursing home, cleaning the bedspreads.” I think that’s a terrible slippery slope to suddenly decide – “Grandma’s slip, we have to stop her from voting.” Who did God create you? “
On a Monday night this spring, several hundred people crowded into the Great Ballroom at High Cliff Golf Course, near Appleton, for a town hall dedicated to election issues. The event, hosted by Ron Tossler, a Republican member of the Brandtgen Committee, promised locals an opportunity to question Megan Wolf, the WEC’s official and the focal point of the Right’s outrage. During a hearing, Tossler urged Wolf to get out of Madison and speak to voters in his district, which Trump won by a landslide.
Wolf worked in election management for eleven years, rising through the bureaucracy until she was named director of the WEC, in 2019. Her appointment was confirmed unanimously by the Republican-controlled Senate. For decades, Wisconsin has been a leader in election administration, and Wolf was chosen by peers from other states to be president of the Center for Electronic Registration Information, a 31-state consortium that shares information in order to improve the accuracy of voter rolls.
Several Republicans, including Voss, urged Wolf to resign. If it does, the committee will have forty-five days to choose a new official. If she fails to do so, the legislature will appoint a replacement for her. “I can see that there is a lot of pressure on the commissioners to allow the Senate to make that decision,” Wolf said. “And then they will be able to install my party.”
Wolf wore a black blouse with a gold eagle necklace that she bought from a second-hand store. (“It gives me my electoral powers,” she joked.) The day before the event, she told me she was “delighted” to receive an invitation. But she became concerned when Jefferson Davis, an electoral integrity activist, sent a press release just hours before City Hall, announcing that the event would feature a discussion between Wolff and Joe Gigante, a right-wing radio talk show host. Host. “Of course we’d be polite, courteous, and professional,” Davis wrote. “There is only one side, if the parties are to be defined, that spawns hatred, anger, bitterness and revenge and not the conservative/national/religion-based/republican side.”
When Wolf arrived, Davis was handing out flyers and signs that read “Cyber Forensic Audit Now!” His supporters taped one of the banners to the wall behind where Wolf was sitting, so that she would be photographed with the banner. It was supposed to be humiliating, and it was.
The person behind me whispered to her companion: “I’m surprised she came.” “I give her credit for that. They tell the lie long enough, and they start believing it.”
Davis and Gigante sat at a table across from Wolf and unleashed a nonstop barrage of tricky facts, hints, and interruptions. Davis put forth baseless speculation accompanied by absurd specific numbers from True The Vote: “About a hundred and forty thousand of them–I think it was 137,551–could be illegal ballots.” Giganti, or regular Joe, as he’s known, was filling up his laptop and phone, focusing on details with the zeal of prosecutors in an effort to track down Wolf.
As Giganti and Davis continued their attack, the crowd became increasingly restless. An elderly woman who wondered about the need to continue the investigation into the 2020 election shouted, “Cultivate! Plant!” When Davis said, “We don’t need a WEC, we don’t need a legislature, we just need a law enforcement agency,” many people stood up and started chanting, “Do it! Do it! Do it!”
The most personal questioning did not come from voters but from Republican political candidates. “How do you sleep at night?” shouted Jay Schroeder, the candidate for Secretary of State. Wolf maintained a narrow, slender smile, and then stayed behind to answer voters’ questions.
But many people seemed more angry than they had been before the event. “There is a lot of dishonesty in this aspect,” a middle-aged man who identified himself only as Kurt told me, shaking his head toward Wolfe. He was the chief of staff for an airline at Milwaukee Airport, Kurt drove two hours to the event after completing an eight-hour work shift. He reiterated some of True the Vote’s claims. “I think the devices have been hacked,” he added. They are out of Venezuela. This is where the hacking operations began, in Venezuela. This is how their elections are handled there, and now we bring them here.” (None of the voting machines or voting software used in Wisconsin has any connection with Venezuela.)
When I saw Wolf in her office, in Madison, a few days later, she was still stunned. She said, “I did not take part in the Stop Theft rally for my night.” “Putting a non-partisan official on one side of the aisle – it’s totally inappropriate.” I ran into Tusler then, but he walked away. (Tossler denied this. He said, “I don’t even know why it might matter. Ordinary Joe gave us a place of honor because we expected he had so much more to ask.”)
Throughout the 20th century, Wisconsin served as a laboratory for democracy. In 1919, it became the first state to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. During the Depression, she established the nation’s first unemployment insurance program. Much of the New Deal, including the Social Security Act, was authored by Wisconsin residents. Decades later, a Milwaukee native named Wilbur Cohen drafted Medicare. The state’s social democratic traditions, which had grown inland, and which incorporated support for open government, public institutions, and economic equality, remained largely partisan. In 1967, a Republican governor extended collective bargaining rights to all state employees. Nine years later, a Democratic governor established same-day voter registration, dramatically increasing the number of people registered.
After the 2010 Tea Party wave, conservatives won control of several state governments, including Wisconsin. It is now a laboratory for conservative initiatives. In 2011, newly elected Governor Scott Walker signed into law 10, the law that eliminated the collective bargaining rights of public officials, and that has become a model for other states. That year, Republicans created a new electoral map in secret, without input from any member of the public or any Democrat. The map they drew was severe enough to prompt a federal court to declare it unconstitutional on partisan grounds, the first such ruling in three decades. (The decision was overturned after a US Supreme Court ruling in a similar case.)
Attacks on political traditions were relentless, even in defeat. When Walker lost to Tony Evers, in 2018, the legislature stripped the governor’s office and the attorney general’s office, which had also gone to a Democrat, of some of their powers.
The Democrats have won eleven of the past twelve state elections. But due to electoral districting manipulation and the 4-3 member conservative majority of the state Supreme Court, they are remarkably incapable of shaping policy. And this deficit is likely to continue for another decade and perhaps beyond. Last year, the court ruled that Wisconsin’s new redistricting map should “reflect the least necessary change” from the 2011 map. Justice Rebecca Dalit noted in her dissent that the decision “perpetuates the partisan agenda of politicians no longer in power,” with “consequences disastrous for representative government in Wisconsin.”
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a case involving severe electoral delimitation in North Carolina, which the state legislature maintains has exclusive authority over electoral maps, despite a state Supreme Court ruling that the redrawn maps were unconstitutional. Four of the nine justices have already indicated their support for the legislature’s position, which is based on a fringe constitutional theory called the Doctrine of the Independent State and Legislature. The court’s decision may give state legislatures unlimited power over elections, including the right to send an alternate slate of electors. In states with significant electoral fraud like Wisconsin, where Republican control of the legislature is almost guaranteed, election results can become meaningless.
Early voting is a busy time for Woodall-Fog. On a rainy Saturday morning before the April mayoral election, I brought umbrellas and gowns for polling staff at a library on Milwaukee’s south side. Another day, she dropped election day forms at the Central Count and noticed a scheduling training session conducted by one of her employees. Woodall-Vogg told me that Brandtjen was monitoring early polling sites across town and asking polling officials about their procedures for accepting multiple ballots.
Woodall-Vogg took me to an early polling place in the lobby of Frank B. Town Hall. Zeidler, next to Milwaukee City Council. A framed picture of Seidler, the city’s last Socialist mayor, hangs in the lobby, a reminder of Wisconsin’s progressive past. The situation was calm, and there were only a handful of voters pouring in. Woodall-Fog pointed to a drop box, a gray rectangular metal container fixed to the wall. People can use it to drop utility bill payments or parking tickets, but it’s now banned on ballots. It was hard to believe that something so practical – and so useful – could be so controversial.
Experiments like Woodall-Vogg had a devastating effect on the morale of Wisconsin employees. 20 percent said the 2020 election made them more likely to quit their jobs, according to a recent survey of more than seven hundred writers by Barry Burden, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin. “It’s very isolated to be an electoral official,” Woodall Fogg said. “I’m not thinking of quitting – I love my job – but you heard the voicemail. I’m going to be hung in the town square.” The threat of political violence is almost tangible. Recently, a retired judge was assassinated at his home in central Wisconsin. The suspected killer, a former convict who had been convicted, posted a memoir about Trump and election theft on Facebook. Police later found his targeting list, which includes Governor Evers.
When Woodall-Vogg was leaving, she introduced me to Paula Jones, a veteran poll worker. “It was quite a confrontation,” Jones said, still upset about what she experienced during the 2020 recount. Seated behind the conference table, she said. “People came in droves from all over the country and without any knowledge of the process. I don’t want to be harsh. I feel really sorry for them – they weren’t instructed how to recognize a correct election. But sometimes I got scared. People were grinding, as if they were doing Patrols. They were looking at normal and harmless operations and assuming something terrible was going on.”
I leaned forward, whispering. She said, “My general impression when I left was that the democracy in this country wasn’t dying but it was gone.” It was totally gone. He did. We were post-democracy at that point, and we’re never going back. And I don’t know I’ve regained my faith yet.” ♦