Last October, Michael Gableman -- a former Wisconsin Supreme Court justice and the Assembly Republicans' lead investigator in their post-2020 election review -- told reporters that he did not have “any understanding of how elections work.” On Tuesday, Gableman summarized his findings to lawmakers, showing a continuing lack of understanding of how elections work, but a fresh and belligerent impulse to smear Wisconsin elections for partisan gain.
Gableman’s report to lawmakers was filled with error-laden, guilt-by-association attacks on election officials and national non-profits that assisted Wisconsin voters after the state's disastrous April 2020 presidential primary – where Republican-led litigation stopped Democratic Gov. Tony Evers from postponing the primary during the pandemic’s first weeks. The court fights and ensuing administrative chaos led to scores of polls being closed due to staff shortages, hours-long waits for voters in several cities, exposure to COVID-19 for poll workers and voters. That fiasco became a national model of how not to run an election in a public health crisis.
The story of how Wisconsin’s election officials and non-governmental experts pivoted in the months that followed, to avoid repeating the primary’s mistakes and to accommodate voters before vaccines existed, was absent from Gableman’s screed -- in which, among other things, he called for the dismantling of the statewide Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC), a bipartisan panel which Republicans created in 2015 and had sanctioned 2020’s emergency measures.
Gableman also attacked officials from Wisconsin’s cities, Democratic epicenters, for taking grants from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s family foundation, which paid for protective equipment and to modernize infrastructure to accommodate voters who wanted to cast a mailed-out ballot or vote early in person. (Nationally, Zuckerberg’s grants were on par with Congress’s emergency election funding to respond to the pandemic.)
“Partisan groups, partisan people, coming in and pretending to be for transparency, for accurate voter rolls,” Gableman said, as he wove a tapestry where election officials and non-profits with election administration expertise were colluding with Democrats to drive up voter turnout to beat Donald Trump (who lost to Joe Biden in Wisconsin by 20,608 votes). “There’s no record in front of us that any of the five [of the state’s most populous] cities needed any kind of protective equipment or [grant] money… Our Wisconsin cities were doing just fine.”
The tenor of Gableman’s two-hour-plus presentation was best captured in 20 minutes of video interviews he played featuring eight elderly nursing home residents, most of whom had severe memory loss. He pushed them to display their confusion onscreen – as proof, he posited, that nursing home workers had illegally been filling out their ballots.
One resident, Marie Heyden, replied, “Gosh, I don’t know the right thing,” when asked by Gableman how she would vote on raising taxes, suggesting, in fact, that she may have been competent to vote. However, Gableman told legislators that 90,000 elders lived in nursing facilities across the state. He omitted that the WEC voted in 2020 to suspend the rules that specialized deputies go into nursing homes to help residents vote—because, at that time, no outsiders were allowed into these homes to prevents seniors from catching Covid-19.
Yet like many pro-Trump Republicans seeking to cast doubt on 2020’s election results, Gableman cited a figure – 90,000 nursing home residents statewide – that was not related to any proven record of illegal voting, but was several times larger than the election’s margin.
“As you hear testimony complaining about alleged violations of the law by the WI Election Comm, recognize these decisions were made unanimously by the bipartisan commission in April 2020, and went unchallenged in court [by Republicans] until AFTER their candidate lost,” tweeted David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research (CEIR), which assists Democratic and Republican officials. Becker helped dispense the Zuckerberg grants and was repeatedly attacked by Gableman.
“Those same COVID-related accommodations were affirmed in August 2020, I believe, by a 5-1 bipartisan vote. Both votes and accommodations were done publicly, and well known to supporters of the losing candidate. Why did they go unchallenged, if such a serious legal violation?” Becker’s thread continued. “To summarize the results of months of investigation, and $600K of taxpayer money, the investigation has discovered, at most, 8 possible cases of voter fraud statewide, in an election Biden won 500 days ago by more than 20K votes.”
Gableman attacked other non-profits, which, notably, have worked with Democrats and Republicans in numerous states to bring greater efficiencies to elections. The Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC) helps states update voter rolls by using more accurate data to remove people who moved or died, as well as identify eligible but unregistered voters – which local officials contact and urge to register. Gableman incorrectly said ERIC was funded by financier George Soros, an oft-wielded but incorrect accusation among right-wingers that has anti-Semitic overtones. He also said that communities of color face no voting barriers.
Gableman similarly attacked “the unknown” National Vote at Home Institute (NVAHI), which is led by the former Oregon Secretary of State, Phil Kiesling, a Democrat who oversaw the nation’s first effort to replace precinct voting with mailed-out ballots. In 2020, NVAHI’s staff, led by former election officials from other western states that shifted to voting by mail, shared their best practices with officials in many states like Wisconsin, where voting with mailed-out ballots was not widespread. In election circles, NVAHI is well known and respected.
Gableman said that the WEC, ERIC, NVAHI, CEIR all were shadow Democratic operations, which is inaccurate as all of them – governmental and non-governmental – work with both parties. What they all are dedicated to, however, is maximizing participation in well-run elections. (In November 2021’s elections, higher turnout helped to elect Republicans.)
“A key question that Gableman should address is why, if the elections were all tainted, any of the legislators who empowered him, who were elected on the same ballots, have any authority? Should their elections be decertified too?” Becker tweeted. “FACT: WI’s voter turnout rate in 2020 was about the same as it was in 2012, and 2004, for instance, right around 75%. There’s nothing suspicious about the voter turnout in WI, which has traditionally high turnout, despite insinuations to the contrary.”
Gableman ended his presentation by saying that he has only spent about half of the Assembly’s $600,000 appropriation and pledged to keep investigating to get to “the truth.”