Senate GOP leader supports firing top elections official, setting stage for legal fight

NOW: Senate GOP leader supports firing top elections official, setting stage for legal fight

MADISON, Wis. (CBS 58) -- Wisconsin's top Senate Republican confirmed Wednesday he will vote to fire the state's elections administrator when she goes up for confirmation Thursday.

The rest of the GOP-controlled Senate is expected to follow suit. Liberals have vowed to fight any effort to oust Wisconsin Elections Commissioner Meagan Wolfe, arguing Thursday's Senate vote is an illegitimate one.

Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg) said too many people had lost faith in Wisconsin's elections system to justify keeping Wolfe in charge of overseeing the guidance county and municipal clerks receive when running elections.

Multiple reviews of the 2020 presidential election did not turn up any proof of widespread voter fraud. However, a swatch of conservatives have pointed to guidance WEC gave clerks during the COVID-19 pandemic that was either later withdrawn or ruled to be illegal, such as absentee ballot drop boxes and allowing clerks to correct absentee witness information, as proof someone else needed to take over as administrator.

"I will vote against her confirm, confirmation," LeMahieu said. "It's been really disappointing the way, especially the Democratic appointments to the elections commission has treated this."

LeMahieu said Wolfe also sealed her fate by not testifying before the Senate's elections committee.

"Failed to defend herself, and to defend the role she's done," LeMahieu said. "So I think it's important to vote her down."

Wolfe said she was following guidance from Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul, who said a June vote to advance Wolfe's nomination did not actually pass. 

The three Republicans on the six-member commission's board voted to advance Wolfe's nomination for a second term. The three Democratic appointees abstained, maintaining that without four votes, there was no majority vote to put Wolfe's fate in the hands of the Senate.

"There is no confirmation because there is no nomination," State Sen. Mark Spreitzer (D-Beloit) said. "The Wisconsin Elections Commission didn't renominate Meagan Wolfe because they didn't have to."

So, what does 'vacancy' actually mean?

While a number of Republican lawmakers want to remove Wolfe, the GOP-appointed chair of the WEC board, Don Millis, has defended Wolfe's performance. 

At a June WEC meeting, Millis said advancing her nomination for another term was the right thing to do as her initial term ended July 1.

Sensing Senate Republicans were poised to fire Wolfe, Democrats on the elections commission moved instead to keep Wolfe's confirmation from advancing to the Senate.

They pointed to a state Supreme Court ruling last year that found Fred Prehn, a Republican appointee to the Natural Resources Board, could stay on the board even though his term expired because the Senate had yet to confirm his replacement. 

Liberals maintain that ruling by a then-conservative state Supreme Court majority set a precedent that Wolfe could stay on without being confirmed for a second term.

LeMahieu argued the circumstances were different because there's specific state laws regarding the appointment of the WEC administrator. 

"It's simple. The statute states that once the term is done, the elections commission has 45 days to nominate a new administrator," LeMahieu said. "And they have not done that."

The language of that law states the commission has 45 days to submit an appointee in cases where there is a vacancy. Democrats maintain there is no vacancy because the Prehn precedent established the end of an appointee's term does not automatically create a vacancy.

"Any vote [Thursday] is purely symbolic," Spreitzer said. "She should show up to work Friday, regardless of the outcome of the vote."

A release from the Wisconsin Elections Commission Wednesday said Wolfe would speak to reporters virtually after Thursday's vote.

Elections approaching

The fight over who should serve as administrator comes about five months before the 2024 spring primary election and less than seven months from the spring general election, which will include the Republican presidential primary. 

LeMahieu said he wasn't worried any change would hurt election preparations, noting Wolfe was named interim WEC administrator in March 2018, about one month before the spring election that year.

Some of the disputed election issues from 2020 and 2022 are still unresolved. Next Thursday, the Assembly's elections committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on current and best practices for absentee voting. 

Note: CBS 58's Emilee Fannon and AJ Bayatpour will sit down for a one-on-one with State Senator Melissa Agard next week. 

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