Wisconsin Republicans fire state’s top election official following conspiracy-filled hearing

Days after a conspiracy theory-filled committee hearing and years of attempts among Republican officials in the wake of the 2020 presidential election, Wisconsin’s GOP-controlled state Senate voted on party lines to remove the state’s top nonpartisan election official from office.

A vote to oust Meagan Wolfe on 14 September marks a dramatic escalation of Republican backlash in the still-smouldering aftermath of the 2020 election, as Donald Trump’s ongoing baseless narrative of widespread voter fraud and manipulation continues to animate state-level attempts to seize control of the electoral process.

Ms Wolfe was nominated to serve as the nonpartisan leader of the bipartisan Wisconsin Elections Commission in 2019. The state Senate unanimously confirmed her position that year. But after Mr Trump’s loss in the state in 2020, Republican lawmakers began demanding her resignation.

This summer, the commission deadlocked on a vote to re-nominate Ms Wolfe for a second term, with three Democratic commissioners abstaining. That stalemate allowed Ms Wolf to remain in the position, triggering Wisconsin Republicans to seek her removal.

A committee hearing in the state Senate last month included testimony from election conspiracy theorists and wild claims defending the former president and demanding Ms Wolf’s arrest. That committee ultimately moved on party lines to send the motion for her removal to the full state Senate.

“Wisconsin Republicans’ attempt to illegally fire Wisconsin’s elections administrator without cause today shows they are continuing to escalate efforts to sow distrust and disinformation about our elections, denigrate our clerks, poll workers, and election administrators, and undermine basic tenets of our democracy, including the peaceful transfer of power,” Democratic Governor Tony Evers said in a statement.

Wisconsin’s Republican Senate President Chris Kapena, right, speaks with lawmakers before a vote to fire Wisconsin Elections Commission administrator Meagan Wolfe on 14 September. (AP)
Wisconsin’s Republican Senate President Chris Kapena, right, speaks with lawmakers before a vote to fire Wisconsin Elections Commission administrator Meagan Wolfe on 14 September. (AP)

The vote also came as Wisconsin Republicans threatened to impeach liberal state Supreme Court Justice Janet Protasiewicz, whose election to the state’s highest court has shifted the ideological balance, poised to redraft the state’s gerrymandering congressional districts – a process that Wisconsin Republicans want to control. Ms Protasiewicz has yet to hear a single case.

“Republicans today demonstrated why they cannot be trusted with that important responsibility – because they will threaten, intimidate, punish, and even attempt to illegally fire anyone who stands in the way of their relentless pursuit to retain political power,” Mr Evers said in his statement.

Meagan Wolfe (AP)
Meagan Wolfe (AP)

Ms Wolfe is likely to stay on as the state’s chief nonpartisan election official, as state officials – including Attorney General Josh Kaul – doubt the legitimacy of Thursday’s vote.

Moments after the vote to remove her, Mr Kaul’s office filed a lawsuit seeking an order to declare Ms Wolfe’s lawful position with the Wisconsin Election Commission.

“The story today is not what the senate has purported to do with its vote. It’s that the senate has blatantly disregarded state law in order to put its full stamp of approval on the ongoing baseless attacks on our democracy,” he said in a statement announcing the case.

“We are going to court to minimize the confusion resulting from today’s stunt and to protect a pillar of our democracy – the fair administration of elections,” he added.

Her ousting is expected to trigger a legal battle to determine who will oversee the state’s elections in a battleground state that could determine the outcome of the 2024 presidential election.

The governor has demanded the state’s Department of Justice provide “immediate representation” for Ms Wolfe.

Nearly three years after 2020 elections, a movement amplifying bogus conspiracy theories and false narratives supported by Mr Trump and his allies continues to edge into state legislatures.

A so-called election denial movement failed to gain any new ground in crucial 2022 midterm elections, but legislation to rewrite the rules of election administration to protect GOP officials continues to surface in state legislatures actoss the county, motivated by an “election integrity” campaign driven by bogus claims that the 2020 election didn’t have any.

Since 2020, an election denier has run for at least one of the top three statewide officers that oversee elections in at least 42 states, according to a new analysis from States United Action.

At least 23 candidates who have denied the election’s outcome or have elected conspiracy theories about elections are serving as either governor, attorney general or secretary of state in 17 states, the report found.

In this year’s off-year election cycle, 11 election deniers are running for those officers in Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi.