FILE PHOTO: An oversize Trump sign is seen in the back of a pickup truck parked outside the Republican Party of Eau Claire County office in Altoona, Wisconsin, U.S., October 22, 2020. REUTERS/Bing Guan/File Photo
By Joseph Ax
(Reuters) – Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled Senate voted on Thursday to oust the state’s nonpartisan top elections official, Meagan Wolfe, a frequent target of right-wing attacks since Donald Trump’s 2020 election loss.
Democrats say the attempt to remove Wolfe was illegal. In a statement after the vote, Democratic Governor Tony Evers said he was directing the state Department of Justice to file a lawsuit to ensure Wolfe can remain in her job.
Voting rights advocates have argued that the Republican move will fuel conspiracy theories about the integrity of the state’s election system ahead of 2024, when Wisconsin is likely to be a crucial swing state in the U.S. presidential race.
Wolfe, who has served as administrator for the state elections commission since 2018, told reporters following the vote that she had no intention of stepping down unless ordered to do so by a court.
“The 2024 election cycle begins in less than three months,” she said. “There is such important work ahead, and my hope is that we quickly get the clarity that we need from the courts.”
In June, the bipartisan commission deadlocked on whether to nominate her to another four-year term, after Democrats deliberately abstained from the vote because they feared the Republican-majority Senate would not confirm her. That left the commission short of the four votes needed under state law to reappoint Wolfe.
Democrats have pointed to a recent state Supreme Court ruling that officials whose terms expire remain in their position in the absence of a legitimate replacement.
“The Senate cannot simply manufacture a nomination that does not exist,” Democratic Senator Mark Spreitzer said on the Senate floor ahead of the vote. “Any vote that is taken today on this nomination has no legal force.”
In August, the state’s Democratic attorney general, Josh Kaul, said in a letter that “there is no question” that Wolfe is still administrator and that the nomination before the Senate was improper.
Wolfe has faced sustained right-wing criticism since the 2020 election, when Trump claimed falsely that he had won the state, citing unsubstantiated claims of fraud. Trump is now the front-runner in the Republican nominating race to challenge Democratic President Joe Biden in 2024.
Republicans have also faulted Wolfe and the commission for policies adopted during the coronavirus pandemic intended to make it easier to vote, such as ballot drop boxes, which were later outlawed by the state Supreme Court.
The Republican majority leader of the Senate, Devin LeMahieu, said Wisconsin voters needed to have confidence that there is no fraud in the state’s elections.
“The fact is that Wisconsinites have expressed concerns with the administration of elections both here in Wisconsin and also nationally,” he said on the floor.
The move against Wolfe is the latest effort by the Republican-controlled legislature to exert its influence over other branches of state government.
Some Republican lawmakers have threatened to impeach Democratic state Supreme Court Justice Janet Protasiewicz, whose electoral victory earlier this year gave liberals a majority on the high court for the first time in years.
The court is expected to decide whether to uphold the state’s 19th-century abortion ban in the coming months, among other significant cases. Republicans have faulted Protasiewicz for public comments she made during the campaign that they say demonstrated her bias.