State's top election official praised by supporters, targeted by election deniers as job remains in limbo

NOW: State’s top election official praised by supporters, targeted by election deniers as job remains in limbo

MADISON, Wis. (CBS 58) -- The ongoing dispute over the state's top election official keeping her job heading into the 2024 election cycle took center stage during a Senate committee hearing Tuesday.

The Senate Committee on Shared Revenue, Elections and Consumer Protection moved forward with nomination proceedings by holding a public hearing on Meagan Wolfe, a move that could ultimately lead to removing her as administrator of the Wisconsin Elections Commission.

It comes after the Senate voted in June to begin confirmation hearings to reappoint Wolfe to the position even though the commissioners on the bipartisan commission never reached the vote threshold, four votes, required under state law to nominate her to another term.

Democratic commissioners abstained from voting which resulted in failing to pass a motion 3-0 to reappoint Wolfe. That led to Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu moving ahead anyway with the process after he viewed the commission's votes as enough to renominate Wolfe.

It's resulted in dueling positions by Republicans and Democrats who interpret the law differently and whether Wolfe can remain in her role.

During the public hearing, Wolfe was notably absent. Last week she announced she wouldn't attend, citing advice from Attorney General Josh Kaul, who wrote a letter that argues lawmakers have no authority to hold a vote to fire her.

A memo from the nonpartisan Legislative Council, which provides legal advice to lawmakers, also disputed Republicans' position by stating that the appointment or reappointment of the WEC administrator requires four "yes" votes from the commission.

“State law requires a majority of WEC commissioners to appoint an administrator; currently, a majority constitutes at least four votes,” attorneys Katie Bender-Olson and Peggy Hurley wrote in the analysis.

Democratic committee member Sen. Mark Spretizer requested the memo and tried to use the analysis to call the hearing off. His attempt was quickly rejected by the GOP chairman, Sen. Dan Knodl, who told CBS 58 he was acting withing his authority to hold the hearing and dismissed opinions by Kaul and legislative attorneys.

"There are competing opinions, which are just that, opinions," Knodl said.

Supporters of Wolfe believe she's being unfairly targeted for her leadership during the pandemic and the commission's decisions, not Wolfe's, made during the 2020 election, such as rules surrounding absentee ballots and drop boxes.

Clerks that testified in support of Wolfe spoke highly of her and some predicted it could be a hectic 2024 election cycle without her.

"Considering what happened after the 2020 elections and since, we are in a world of crazy for next year, said Lisa Tollefson, the Rock County clerk. "With the actions and accusations that have been made toward election officials, we are seeing the highest turnover in county clerks and municipal clerks in our history."

Tollefson's comments received boos from several election deniers who lined up to testify against Wolfe.

Some included Michael Gableman, who was hired by Assembly Republicans to investigate the 2020 election and later fired after producing no evidence of widespread fraud. Gableman's salary and unsuccessful probe cost taxpayers upwards of $1.5 million which is at the center of ongoing lawsuits.

Harry Waitt, the Racine County man who was charged with election fraud and leads a group that promotes false claims about the 2020 election, and Jefferson Davis, a spokesman for an election integrity group, also testified, arguing Wolfe is "unfit" to serve.

"It's time for a new administrator of elections," Jefferson said. "This state and these voters deserve better than what they've had in the last four years."

The next step for Republicans would be to schedule an executive committee vote to advance Wolfe's reappointment for Senate consideration. Knodl said he has not decided on when that will be, but he did suggest how legal action may complicate the process.

Both sides predict the dispute over Wolfe will ultimately be resolved in court.

"The timing might factor in with other things going on with the executive committee," Knodl said. "I'm not there to speculate on what could go to court, how it could end up in court, I'm there to move the process forward," Knodl said. "The Senate process is what I've done."

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