Northeast Wisconsin municipal clerks said “NO NO NO” to voter suppression bills
From the local government staff that opposed new voting bills to the legislators pushing for voting reforms, election fraud has become a major talking point in the region
The Wisconsin state legislature is moving forward with a pile of bills set on restricting voter rights and changing election laws. Before these bills even hit the Capitol, municipal workers from Northeast Wisconsin opposed them.
According to records The NEWcomer obtained from the office of Senator Roger Roth (R-Appleton) via an open records request, office staff began circulating drafts of the bills as early as March 1. The emails show clerks with the City of Neenah and the Town of Grand Chute strongly opposing the bills, which are now headed for Governor Tony Evers' desk. The governor has said he is likely to veto every bill.
Clerks are responsible for administering elections, preparing reports, fulfilling or assisting with records requests, and other paperwork-intensive tasks.
Doing due diligence, Roth’s office staff began circulating the bills to get input and feedback from municipalities in his district. The bills were sent to representatives from Appleton, Outagamie County, Town of Greeneville, Neenah, Menasha, and Grand Chute.
The draft bills provided by Roth’s office would make a number of changes, including limiting absentee ballot drop-offs in public parks to early voting only, banning automatic full-year absentee requests, requiring the Wisconsin Elections Commission to post meeting minutes within 24 hours after hearings or meetings, and forbidding municipalities from applying for or receiving private funds for elections administration.
After the 2020 general election, the Wisconsin legislature has spent countless hours looking for ways to construct barriers to voter access. Republicans, who maintained majorities in both houses of the legislature in the 2020 election, are pushing The Big Lie by probing into election security issues and creating bills that burden municipal clerks.
Stephanie Cheslock, Neenah’s City Clerk, told Roth’s staff the bills will make local voting officials' jobs unnecessarily harder.
“Many of the legislative moves summarized (in the) below (email) restrict voter access unreasonably and add additional hoops for clerks and voters alike,” said Cheslock in a March email to Chad Doran, District Director for State Senator Roth. “Voter fraud, in my experience, quite nearly does not exist so these measures would not be fixing any problems for clerks but instead creating more work and more rules for everyone involved.”
Cheslock said the proposed bills ranged from being overly burdensome to voters to adding more work for clerks during elections when they are already understaffed.
One draft bill that would permit only one secure dropbox per municipal building struck a chord with Cheslock.
“This would disenfranchise voters,” said Cheslock in an email to Doran. “Having multiple drop boxes makes voting more accessible, which gets more people to vote, which is the goal.”
Angie Cain, clerk for the Town of Grand Chute, didn’t mince words when speaking with Roth’s staff.
“Some of these are so terrible, I hope they don’t pass!” said Cain in a March email to Doran.
Cain took issue with Roth’s proposal to require indefinitely confined voters to produce a sworn declaration that must be renewed biennially or produce a signed medical form if they are under 65. The proposal would require identification and would not allow voters to cite COVID-19 as a reason for requesting an absentee ballot.
“NO NO NO. I am extremely concerned with the indefinitely confined legislation. I think it is a horrible idea to have Clerks monitor doctor (sic) notes and whether someone is indefinitely confined,” said Cain in a March email to Doran.
Northeast Wisconsin has been a hotbed for election integrity talking points since the 2020 election. After a far-right-funded blog called Wisconsin Spotlight released an “election report,” Senator Roth called on Green Bay Mayor Eric Genrich to resign.
Wisconsin Spotlight, operated and funded by the Empower Wisconsin Foundation, released the report on March 9, accusing Genrich and city staff of allowing outside infiltrators into the vote count process.
Empower Wisconsin defines itself as “Wisconsin's premiere conservative information hub” and is based in Madison. The organization launched its multimedia project in 2019, naming conservative-leaning journalist and fill-in talk radio host Matt (M.D.) Kittle as its Executive Director.
Kittle has gone on to republish stories from Wisconsin Spotlight with The Daily Signal, a Tea Party-affiliated and Heritage Foundation-funded news site.
Empower Wisconsin, INC and Empower Wisconsin Foundation, INC were both registered with the state in July of 2019 and list the business registration arm of the Godfrey & Kahn Milwaukee law offices as their registered agent.
Empower Wisconsin is a tax-exempt advocacy organization under section 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code. 501c4 organizations are dubbed social welfare organizations and “must not be organized for profit and must be operated exclusively to promote social welfare.”
Empower Wisconsin is run by Adam Jarchow, a former Republican State Assemblyperson who represented a far-west corner of the state from 2014 to 2018. Eric O'Keefe, the Republican political activist and author behind Wisconsin Club for Growth—the Scott Walker-backing organization that spent a million dollars during the recall election and fueled the infamous John Doe Wisconsin lawsuits—is listed as the organization's director. Valerie Biel Johnson, a Randolph Wisconsin young adult fantasy author and publisher, acts as Empower Wisconsin's secretary.
2019 tax fillings show Kim Gorden, director of the Wisconsin Alliance for Reform, an anti-tax, GOP-staffed Wisconsin organization, as Empower Wisconsin’s previous director before Kittle. Empower Wisconsin Foundation received $51,000 from grants and individual contributions throughout 2019. As a 501c4 organization, Empower Wisconsin is not required to publicly disclose its donors.
The bigger, well-funded picture
The City of Green Bay faced extreme scrutiny following the release of Wisconsin Spotlight's report. In an effort to provide transparency, the City released all records associated with the November election and its logistics.
Green Bay received nearly $1.6 million in grant funding from the Center for Tech and Civic Life in 2020 to support election staff and logistics through the COVID-19 pandemic. The city council unanimously approved the funding before the November election. Now, members of that same city council are parading claims of election fraud. Some Green Bay citizens have filed a complaint against the city for the use of these private funds. Alderpersons who abstained from voting on a resolution to express confidence in the staff who administered the election are using the unresolved complaint as political cover.
Green Bay is still dealing with November’s fallout despite the city’s office making thousands of pages of emails and other documents related to the election’s administration publically available as well as a 19-page report from the City Attorney Vanessa Chavez addressing claims of mishandling. Attorney Chavez even attempted to get former City employees Kris Teske, Kim Wayte, and Sandy Juno, the main source of election fraud claims, on record for her follow-up report. None of the former employees provided comments for the report released in April.
While this report has been causing headaches and unnecessary work for Green Bay, the attack against election staff and administrators is part of a larger, well-funded project.
Originally reported by Mother Jones, a leaked video shows the director of Heritage Action for America, a sister organization of the Heritage Foundation, talking to private donors about the voter suppression bills they have had a hand in crafting for states across the country, including Wisconsin.
Heritage claimed that it had spent upwards of $24 million over two years in eight states—Arizona, Michigan, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Nevada, Texas, and Wisconsin—to pass restrictive voting legislation. Currently, members of the U.S. Senate are hoping to pass the For The People Act with bipartisan support in efforts to take an aggressive approach to voter protections.
Three Democrats in the state legislature, Representatives Lee Snodgrass (D-Appleton) and Kristina Shelton (D-Green Bay) and Senator Jeff Smith (D-Brunswick), have recently introduced legislation that would require lawmakers to work as election workers in hopes of educating and informing all lawmakers on the process some of them are claiming is corrupt.
“By signing up to be poll workers, we, state-elected leaders, will learn more about election practices and will ensure our polls are well staffed, efficient and functioning to the highest standard of the law,” said Shelton in an April press release.
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