Green Bay's central count facility for absentee ballots at the KI Convention Center on Nov. 3, 2020.
Green Bay's central count facility for absentee ballots at the KI Convention Center on Nov. 3, 2020. Green Bay is one of 39 cities, villages, and towns that open and count all absentee ballots at a central facility rather than at each polling station. (Photo by Christina Lieffring)

Curiously timed to coincide with a conservative group’s ‘investigation’ that feeds a self-fulfilling cycle of accusations but shows no fraud.

For a second time since last November’s presidential election, a Republican-led legislative committee has expended time and resources to hold an invitation-only hearing to provide a public forum for innuendo, suspicions, and allegations about how the election was conducted, but evidence of actual fraud has yet to be introduced.

The Assembly Committee on Campaigns and Elections scheduled the Wednesday hearing to discuss the findings of a “report” from a right-wing website that alleged, “infiltration of the November presidential elections by liberal groups and Democratic activists” in the City of Green Bay. 

December: Democratic Lawmakers Ditch Republican-Led ‘Sham’ Election Hearing

The article by M.D. Kittle was published on Wisconsin Spotlight, a highly partisan blog affiliated with the conservative organization Empower Wisconsin, led by former Rep. Adam Jarchow of Balsam Lake. It states the report is based on emails obtained through an open records request by Rep. Shae Sortwell (R-Two Rivers). 

Wednesday’s hearing was scheduled before the story had even been publicly released, and Rep. Janel Brandtjen (R-Menomonee Falls), who chairs the committee, is quoted in the story as saying those emails would be “front and center” in the hearing. 

“Going forward, if we don’t address them, I think we have a breakdown in Wisconsin’s political system,” Brandtjen is quoted saying in the article.

Green Bay was one of the five major Wisconsin cities that received funds and technical assistance from the Center for Tech and Civic Life, along with the cities of Milwaukee, Madison, Racine and Kenosha. Hundreds of other cities across the state received grants to help with the costs and logistics of administering a presidential election during a pandemic. Congressional Republicans last summer and fall never took up an aid package proposed by Democrats to provide financial assistance for elections.

Mayor Eric Genrich noted in a statement that Green Bay had already faced scrutiny for its collaboration with CTCL and “in each case, the city’s actions have been upheld.”

The article unleashed a partisan frenzy on both sides of the aisle. Rep. Roger Roth (R-Appleton) and Sortwell called for Genrich to resign. Reps. Kristina Shelton (D-Green Bay) and Lee Snodgrass (D-Appleton) came to his defense, saying the story was a continuation of the false narrative that the election had been tampered with.

Genrich is a former Democratic Assembly representative.

Much of the report consists of excerpts from emails, spun in the article to imply the collaboration was for nefarious ends, though what those ends were exactly or what laws were broken is unclear.

Personnel issues

At the heart of the controversy was a readily apparent strained relationship between Genrich and former Green Bay City Clerk Kris Teske dating back to election issues in previous cycles. 

Teske and Genrich first made headlines in 2016 when then-Rep. Genrich requested a satellite voting site on the UW-Green Bay campus to accommodate students who previously had to wait in lines for up to two hours. According to an email made public by an open records request, Teske had asked whether her office could deny the request on the basis that it would give an advantage to Democrats, since more students lean left politically. Then-Chief of Staff Celestine Jeffreys told the Green Bay Press-Gazette that the email had been taken out of context. 

Genrich was elected as mayor in 2019. The next flashpoint between the two was the April 2020 election. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of poll workers in the city dropped to the point where 31 polling locations in the city had to be reduced to two. Genrich decided not to accept an offer for help from the Wisconsin National Guard because he, according to a statement “did not feel comfortable implicating untrained city employees, members of the public, or members of the National Guard in a dangerous and stressful environment.” 

Green Bay residents faced long lines and, as one person testified during Wednesday’s hearing, some decided not to vote. As a result the city was under heavy scrutiny heading into the November election and, according to emails obtained by the Green Bay Press-Gazette, Teske felt that she was being sidelined out of the process. City officials have disputed her characterization of events. 

Teske in her emails questioned the role of CTCL in the election and the consultant, Michael Spitzer-Rubenstein, from the National Vote at Home Institute. The Wisconsin Spotlight article emphasized his work in politics, where he was an intern and a communications consultant on campaigns, but overall his career has spanned from communications and digital strategy to entrepreneurship and start-ups.

On Election Day, Teske was on a leave of absence. By January, she had resigned to take a position with the Village of Ashwaubenon. Genrich appointed Jeffreys as the new city clerk. 

During his brief testimony Wednesday Rep. Shae Sortwell disparaged Jeffreys as a “partisan hack.” Jeffreys was hired as Chief of Staff in 2016 by former Green Bay Mayor Jim Schmitt, a Republican.

Allegations of… what exactly?

Like the many lawsuits filed by the former President Donald Trump which were all dismissed by state and federal courts, the accusations lobbed against Genrich and Spitzer-Rubenstein contain a lot of blown smoke but no signs of an actual fire. 

On Wednesday, several people who testified before the committee spoke of officials being on their phones or working on computers during activity at the KI Center, a conference facility the city was using as its central vote counting site. One man said he even wondered at one point whether Genrich was following him around KI Center. One woman testified that she’d seen a spreadsheet on Spitzer-Rubenstein’s laptop and that he’d been answering poll workers’ questions. They also talked about how they were unsure why Spitzer-Rubenstein was at central count and what exactly his role was. A few accused Green Bay Community Liaison Amaad Rivera-Wagner of being aggressive and hostile to them.

Even if true, none of the above counts as election fraud, nor suggests that election fraud was afoot.

One of the invited speakers before the committee was Erick Kaardal, a conservative attorney from Minnesota who represents the conservative Wisconsin Voters Alliance . A lawsuit he filed on behalf of Wisconsin Voters Alliance to overturn President Joe Biden’s win in at least five states, including Wisconsin, was thrown out by U.S. District Court Judge James Boasberg, who stated that the suit was so specious and flawed it could merit punishing Kaardal.

“Plaintiffs spend scores of pages cataloguing every conceivable discrepancy or irregularity in the 2020 vote in the five relevant states, already debunked or not, most of which they nonetheless describe as a species of fraud,” the judge wrote. “The only reason the Court can see for the Complaint to spend 70+ pages on irrelevant allegations of fraud, not one instance of which persuaded any court in any state to question the election’s outcome, is political grandstanding.”

Kaardal talked at length about the reporting process cities had to undergo to prove to CTCL that they had spent the funds as approved, which is standard procedure for any grant process to ensure accountability. 

He also alleged that the Wisconsin Elections Commission was not included in the decision-making process and flat-out stated that he believed the city violated election laws, which Genrich disputed in his statement.

“The City conducted the election in accordance with state and federal laws, with our legal department vetting the decisions being made leading up to the November election, and City staff engaging in frequent consultations with the Wisconsin Elections Commission to help shape our decisions,” Genrich wrote. “We are confident that the election was carried out legally and with integrity, and the hard work of our dedicated staff is to be commended. The City legal department has reviewed all of the allegations in the article and agrees that they are without merit.”

The most damning piece of evidence raised was that Spitzer-Rubenstein was given keys to KI Center where central count was held and officials were told not to unlock the facility until he was present. However, there is no indication that Spitzer-Rubenstein was ever alone with the ballots, much less tampered with them.