Despite claims, charges haven’t yet been referred to the Racine County district attorney. It’s not clear if they ever will be.
In the midst of a pandemic that at the time had killed a few hundred Wisconsinites on its way to killing more than 8,000, the state commission in charge of administering election laws relaxed guidance that allowed voters in nursing homes to cast ballots more easily while slowing the spread of COVID-19.
The sheriff of Racine County on Thursday said he has determined that the move, taken by the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC), constitutes voter fraud.
Sheriff Christopher Schmaling, a Republican, alleged the WEC violated the law when it said nursing home residents could vote absentee last year without first being visited by so-called special voting deputies (SVDs). Many nursing homes were not allowing visitors due to COVID-19, so the WEC said care facility residents could cast absentee ballots without having to rely on SVDs like normal.
“To put it simply, we did not break the law,” WEC Chair Ann Jacobs, an attorney from Milwaukee, said in a statement. “In fact, without action from the Commission, many residents in Wisconsin care facilities could have and would have been disenfranchised and not able to vote in the 2020 elections.”
In all, five WEC members and its nonpartisan administrator issued statements rebuking Schmaling’s accusations.
“The discussion about Special Voting Deputy access during the COVID-19 pandemic is over 18 months old and has occurred entirely in public meetings,” WEC Administrator Meagan Wolfe said in a statement that referred to the commission’s webpage about last year’s actions regarding SVDs.
Schmaling’s press conference is the latest example of Republican efforts to call into question the legitimacy of the 2020 election in order to lay groundwork for passing new restrictions on voting rights. Numerous court rulings, the WEC, and a nonpartisan legislative audit have consistently found no evidence of widespread fraud or irregularities. Out of more than 3 million votes in Wisconsin, only four people have been charged with voter fraud.
“The purpose of this presentation today is not political,” said Schmaling, who last year refused to enforce Gov. Tony Evers’ COVID-19 orders and spoke maskless at a Republican Women of Southeast Wisconsin gathering in the midst of the pandemic.
In the absence of SVDs, nursing home staff helped some residents fill out their absentee ballots, a practice that is not illegal but one that Schmaling and other Republicans have painted as nefarious.
‘A Natural Stopping Point’
Sgt. Michael Luell, the sheriff’s deputy who led the investigation, said 42 residents of a particular nursing home in Racine County cast a ballot in the 2020 presidential election—a marked increase over the average number of 10. Luell attempted to depict that increase as suspicious even though Wisconsin, like the rest of the nation, saw historic levels of voter turnout last year.
Luell said the families of eight of those voters filed complaints claiming their loved ones were not in a good enough mental state to cast a ballot, but he later admitted only one of those voters had a court ruling them incapable of voting.
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Republican lawmakers earlier this year introduced a bill that would charge nursing home staff with a felony if they tried to encourage or discourage residents to vote, a law change that advocates feared would prevent such voters from getting the help they need to cast a ballot.
Schmaling and Luell have not referred charges for either WEC members or nursing home staff to the Racine County district attorney, and they offered conflicting responses when asked whether they will present their findings.
“I think this is a natural stopping point of the investigation,” Luell said after admitting he hasn’t yet submitted paperwork to the district attorney because the case “is so detailed, so complex.”
A few minutes later, Schmaling said, “We’re going to give this to our district attorney.”
Schmaling also said Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul should launch an investigation into the WEC. Kaul’s office previously declined to review their findings, Schmaling and Luell said.
Luell said an attorney general review is “much more appropriate” than referring the case to the district attorney.
In an emailed statement, Wisconsin Department of Justice spokesperson Gillian Drummond appeared to shoot down Schmaling’s request for a statewide investigation into the sheriff’s claims, emphasizing the fact no one has been charged in the case.
“Significantly, no charges have been filed in this case by the Racine County DA’s office,” Drummond said.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester), who represents a broad swath of the county Schmaling oversees, said Wolfe should resign as WEC’s administrator based on the sheriff’s presentation. Vos has also worked to undermine the public’s confidence in elections, making dubious statements about election integrity and paying a conservative former state Supreme Court justice $680,000 in taxpayer funds to lead an “investigation” into the election.
Many other Republican lawmakers followed suit and demanded Wolfe’s resignation, and some others demanded the entire WEC resign.
“As Wisconsin’s nonpartisan chief election official, I have a statutory obligation to rise above political attempts to undermine our elections,” Wolfe said in a statement, calling it “irresponsible” to continue engaging with the GOP criticism.
Evers chimed in as well, saying in a statement: “Speaker Vos’ comments are unbecoming of his office and the people we serve. It’s my expectation—and one Wisconsinites share—that elected officials in this state treat others with civility and respect. The speaker’s behavior today fell woefully short of those expectations.”
This story has been updated with comment from the Wisconsin Department of Justice, WEC, an additional statement from Meagan Wolfe, and a statement from Gov. Tony Evers.