Wisconsin election conspiracy theories, officials knock down claims

Wisconsin's top elections officials systematically knocked down a series of conspiracy theories about the state's voter records and election administration Wednesday. 

The testimony came during a public hearing before a legislative committee chaired by a Republican who has helped elevate the claims.

The hearing before the Assembly elections committee gave Wisconsin Elections Commission officials their first public chance to respond to numerous unfounded claims presented to the panel in recent months.

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Wisconsin's elections are accessible and secure, the state's top elections official, Meagan Wolfe, testified. She said the commission is also taking seriously recommendations from the Legislature’s nonpartisan Audit Bureau on how the state's elections might be improved.

"I think we can do more to show people how it works," Wolfe said of elections. "It’s a complicated system. I will never fault somebody for asking questions about the system, genuine questions about the system, because it is complex."

Meagan Wolfe

There have been numerous "unverified, fantastical claims" made that divert lawmakers and the public from tackling problems that really need addressing, said Rob Kehoe, technology director for the elections commission.

He walked through a number of allegations that were made before the committee at a hearing last week by Peter Bernegger, who has been leading his own review of election records and who was sentenced to 70 months in federal prison for his 2009 conviction for bank fraud and mail fraud.

In two examples, Bernegger last week pointed to an address that had hundreds of people registered to vote. Kehoe explained that in one case, it was one of Madison's largest apartment buildings with more than 800 registered voters. And he said in another, it was a University of Wisconsin-Parkside residence hall with 359 registered voters.

Another case raised last week questioned whether a registered voter named "Ambrose Adventure" was a fake voter. Kehoe said a search of public records showed that Adventure was a real person who had changed his name.

President Joe Biden won Wisconsin by just under 21,000 votes in 2020, a result that's withstood recounts, numerous lawsuits, an audit by the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau and a review by the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.

An Associated Press review of Wisconsin and other battleground states found far too few voters have been charged with fraud to change the election results.

Still, Republicans have been pushing unfounded claims of broader misconduct as part of a national push to discredit Biden's win. In Wisconsin, there is an ongoing Republican-ordered investigation by former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman being paid for with $676,000 in taxpayer money.

Some Republican lawmakers who are upset with how the 2020 election was conducted have called for Wolfe and bipartisan commissioners to resign and be charged with felonies. A county prosecutor last week declined to file charges as requested by a sheriff who backed Donald Trump.

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Republican state Rep. Timothy Ramthun, who supports election conspiracy theories, wants to overturn Biden's win in Wisconsin and launched a campaign for governor on Saturday. He spoke at a Capitol rally Tuesday with others who want to rescind the state's 10 electoral college votes awarded to Biden, even though nonpartisan attorneys for the Legislature have said that's not legally possible.

Rep. Janel Brandtjen, chairwoman of the Assembly elections committee, also spoke at the rally. She asked Wolfe numerous questions during the hearing about steps the commission was taking to investigate claims of fraud and to ensure that people who shouldn't be voting, such as non-citizens, aren't casting ballots.

Republican Rep. Ron Tusler, a member of the elections committee, urged the commission to be more proactive in combating claims that are made and often spread quickly on social media.

"There’s 50-plus conspiracy theories out there," Tusler said. "If we can narrow down the most tangible one, kind of get rid of these easier to explain ones, I think we’d all be in a better place now."

Republican Rep. Donna Rozar said the commission must also work to combat the perception of illegal activity, even if there is none.

"It breaks my heart what has happened since the November 2020 election," she said. "It's divisive. ... It's been a very politicized thing and I feel really bad about that."

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