Wisconsin Republicans, after a string of losses in hotly contested statewide races, are taking steps toward sidelining the state’s nonpartisan elections chief and undercutting the new liberal majority on the state Supreme Court.
Their actions – an escalation of bitter, partisan feuds that have rankled the state government in one of the nation’s most important swing states for years – raise questions about how the 2024 election will be run there and who will set the rules.
“This is clearly uncharted territory,” said David Canon, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
With a new supermajority, Republicans in the state Senate are moving to fire Meagan Wolfe, the administrator of the nonpartisan Wisconsin Elections Commission who continues to be the target of false conspiracy theories about the 2020 election.
Democrats say Republicans don’t have the power to remove Wolfe. Their battle could land in state courts – where the GOP is considering an unprecedented power grab and further partisan battles are brewing.
Just months after liberal Justice Janet Protasiewicz won a 10-year Wisconsin Supreme Court term in a race that focused largely on abortion rights and gerrymandering, handing liberals a 4-3 majority on the bench after 15 years of conservative control, state Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and other influential Republicans have floated the prospect of impeaching Protasiewicz. It would be a move that has only happened once in Wisconsin history – in 1853, when the Assembly voted to impeach a state judge accused of corruption, who was later acquitted by the Senate.
Further complicating the situation: Wisconsin Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, a Republican, has said the chamber would not consider acting on Protasiewicz. If the Assembly votes to impeach the justice and the Senate were to convict and remove her from office, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers would appoint her replacement. But if the Senate takes no action at all, she would be suspended from all official duties – leaving the court deadlocked, 3-3.
Canon described that potential course of action as “an even more diabolical twist.”
“This is actually a more potent tool to dismantle the liberal majority by having an impeachment vote in the Assembly, which is just a majority vote, and then having the Senate do nothing. She basically is removed from office and can’t rule on any cases,” he said.
Meanwhile, the justices themselves are ensnared in a bitter, public feud – playing out before Protasiewicz has even ruled on a case. The conservative chief justice, Annette Ziegler, accused the liberal majority of a “coup” after the court’s four liberal members voted to weaken the chief justice’s powers and fire the conservative director of state courts.
“This is a red alert for democracy and the rule of law,” said Ben Wikler, the chairman of the Wisconsin Democratic Party. “Republicans are threatening to use a constitutional mechanism that’s reserved for the greatest of crises as a means for a power grab.”
Evers’ win in 2018, followed by the victories of Biden in 2020, Evers in his reelection bid in 2022 and Protasiewicz earlier this year, have ended what for nearly a decade had been unified Republican control of the battleground state.
However, due in part to what experts have called one of the nation’s most extreme partisan gerrymanders, Republicans have maintained a foothold in the state legislature, with massive Senate and Assembly majorities.
That gerrymander was a focus of this spring’s Supreme Court race. During the campaign, Protasiewicz called the current state legislative maps “rigged” and “unfair” and suggested courts should evaluate their constitutionality.
After she was seated in August, Democratic-backed groups filed two lawsuits asking the Wisconsin Supreme Court to throw out the Republican-drawn maps. The court quickly moved to set a deadline for briefs on whether it should proceed with the pair of cases.
State legislative Republicans responded by asking Protasiewicz to recuse herself from the cases, arguing she had prejudged them.
Vos then floated the possibility of impeaching Protasiewicz if she did not recuse herself. Failing to do so, he said, would be “a pretty clear violation of the way that all of America works.”
“We have to wait and kind of see what happens,” Vos told reporters Tuesday when asked directly whether he would move to impeach the liberal justice if she does not recuse herself.
Wisconsin state Sen. Dan Knodl, whose April special election victory gave Republicans their Senate supermajority, told Milwaukee’s CBS 58 he would support impeaching Protasiewicz if she does not recuse herself on redistricting cases.
“There’s going to be a compelling case that’s going to be very concerning if she sits on that court and rules on these things,” Knodl said.
Neither Vos nor Knodl responded to CNN’s requests for comment.
Senate Minority Leader Melissa Agard, a Madison Democrat, said impeaching Protasiewicz would be “utterly absurd” and “an insult to voters everywhere.”
“Legislative Republicans will jump over any hurdle to usurp the will of the majority,” Agard said in a statement.
The impeachment threats come amid already escalating tensions on Wisconsin’s high court. Besides reducing the chief justice’s powers, the liberal majority voted to open administrative meetings to the public and fired a conservative former judge who had overseen the state’s court system for six years. The justices have criticized each others’ actions in emails made public in recent days.
The new Wisconsin Supreme Court term is expected see the justices rule on the enforcement of the state’s near-total abortion ban passed in 1849. The court could also set voting rules and settle the dispute over Wolfe’s status as the Wisconsin Elections Commission administrator.
Wolfe, for years, has faced criticism from Republicans for the bipartisan commission’s 2020 decision to advise clerks to send nursing home residents absentee ballots amid the coronavirus pandemic, sidestepping a state law that required poll workers to visit those nursing homes first.
She has also been the target of conspiracy theories driven by Republicans who parroted Trump’s falsehoods about widespread fraud in the 2020 election.
Michael Gableman, the former Wisconsin Supreme Court justice who was hired by Vos to review the state’s 2020 election, has frequently targeted Wolfe, including mocking the way she dressed.
“Black dress, white pearls – I’ve seen the act, I’ve seen the show,” Gableman said on WTAQ-AM, before comparing her to Hillary Clinton.
Months later, Vos fired Gableman, ending a review that had cost taxpayers more than $1.1 million but produced no evidence of fraud.
Wolfe’s four-year term as administrator was set to end this summer. In June, after the three Republicans on the election commission voted to renominate her for another four-year term, the three Democratic members abstained to prevent her renomination from heading to the GOP-led state Senate for approval. That effectively left her renomination in limbo.
It was a move that mirrored Republicans’ efforts to maintain power over state commissions despite Evers’ victories in 2018 and 2022. The state Supreme Court ruled last year that a Wisconsin Natural Resources Board member, who had been appointed by former GOP Gov. Scott Walker and whose term expired in 2021, could remain on the panel indefinitely, after the state Senate refused to vote to confirm his successor.
By doing nothing, under the state high court’s previous ruling, the Wisconsin Election Commission believed it could keep Wolfe on in her current role without requiring Senate confirmation.
Still, the state Senate’s elections committee, chaired by Knodl, moved forward with a hearing Tuesday, beginning the process of considering Wolfe’s confirmation and potentially triggering a court fight.
Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul, a Democrat, called the proceedings illegitimate.
“To the extent that there is any unfounded doubt, I am writing to make clear that WEC has not appointed a new administrator, and there is no WEC administrator appointment before the Senate. This is not a close question under state law,” Kaul wrote in a letter addressed to the nonpartisan Wisconsin Legislative Council’s director, Anne Sappenfield.
Wolfe did not attend Tuesday’s hearing. In a June letter to state lawmakers, she said Wisconsin’s handling of the 2020 election has been “repeatedly mischaracterized.”
“I believe it is fair to say that no election in Wisconsin history has been as scrutinized, reviewed, investigated and re-investigated as much as the November 2020 General Election,” she wrote. “The outcome of all those 2020 probes produced essentially the same results: the identification of a relatively small number of suggestions for procedural improvements, with no findings of wrongdoing or significant fraud.”
Local clerks praised Wolfe during the state Senate hearing. Rock County Clerk Lisa Tollefson told lawmakers that during the pandemic,” there were so many things happening that wouldn’t have happened without her strength and guidance.”
Several prominent election deniers – including Gableman – also spoke at the hearing.
“The record speaks for itself, and nothing speaks as highly as the fact that (Wolfe) didn’t come here today to tell you about all the good work she’s been doing,” Gableman said.
The Wisconsin State Journal reported that Knodl had not yet decided whether to hold a committee vote on Wolfe’s removal. He said the issue could reach the full Senate as early as mid-September.
Wikler, the state Democratic Party chairman, said the steps the GOP legislature is considering taking go “far beyond” their moves to reduce Evers’ power in a 2018 lame-duck session just before the Democratic governor took office.
“They’re not just stripping power; they’re trying to nullify the election,” Wikler said. “If they’re willing to do that in this case, they’re willing to do it with anyone.”