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‘It’s the same story’: Wisconsin Republicans’ secretive review of 2020 election takes lessons from Arizona’s conspiracy-laden process

<i>Scott Olson/Getty Images</i><br/>Residents vote at the Town of Beloit fire station on November 03
Getty Images
Scott Olson/Getty Images
Residents vote at the Town of Beloit fire station on November 03

By Eric Bradner, Kyung Lah and Anna-Maja Rappard, CNN

Wisconsin’s partisan review of the 2020 election results has turned into an Arizona-style circus, with the Republicans behind it targeting local officials and casting doubt on the election’s outcome — without offering any evidence of wrongdoing.

Those leading the Republican review in Wisconsin have consulted with many of the same figures that advised Arizona’s partisan ballot review. Wisconsin taxpayers paid to send Michael Gableman, who is leading the review, to South Dakota for a forum hosted by MyPillow CEO and election conspiracy theorist Mike Lindell, and to Arizona to observe the review taking place there this summer, records obtained by American Oversight show.

But in Arizona, though, ballots were reviewed and recounted for weeks in a Phoenix coliseum, with video cameras and journalists present. In Wisconsin, the review by Gableman, a former state Supreme Court justice appointed to lead the review by Republican state Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Republican lawmakers, is more secretive, largely taking place behind the tinted doors of a nondescript office that Gableman and his staff are using.

“Even as un-transparent as the Arizona audit was, this is even less transparent,” said David Becker, the executive director of the non-partisan Center for Election Innovation & Research in Washington, DC.

“You’re seeing this all being done secretly,” Becker said. “Gableman, who’s conducting the audit, still has not even identified all the members of his staff who are being paid by taxpayer dollars. They’re not identifying their methods. They’re not identifying what they’re doing. They’re changing their stories about what they’re looking for and how they’re looking for it because they don’t want to establish a single location of focus that can be criticized.”

Wisconsin Republicans duck questions about review

Gableman has a history of advancing conspiracy theories about the 2020 election.

“Our elected leaders — our elected leaders — have allowed unelected bureaucrats at the Wisconsin Election Commission to steal our vote,” he said at a November 7, 2020 event.

He has offered limited, and often vaguely threatening, updates about his review on YouTube and in combative appearances in front of state lawmakers.

He has also taken extreme legal steps, including asking a Waukesha County judge late last month to order the arrests of the mayors of Madison and Green Bay after attempts failed to compel city leaders to produce documents — many of which were already public — and testify. An attorney for the Green Bay mayor called those efforts “comic buffoonery.”

However, neither Gableman nor Vos were willing to answer CNN’s questions this week about their efforts to re-examine President Joe Biden’s victory over former President Donald Trump in Wisconsin last year by 20,000 votes, or 0.6 percentage points.

Gableman refused to speak with a reporter as he left his office this week, and aides for Vos said the speaker had no time for an interview.

Democrats being targeted by Gableman say his bizarre actions are aimed at identifying villains for Republicans to target and casting doubt on the 2020 election outcome even if he is unable to produce any evidence of wrongdoing.

“It is both laughable because of how unprofessional they have conducted themselves, but it is also dead serious,” said Madison, Wisconsin Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway.

She said she refuses to go along with reviewers’ demand that she answer Gableman’s questions in private, though she would do so publicly, and plans to ignore his threats to have her jailed. Gableman says in the subpoenas that he has the authority to act on behalf of the Wisconsin state Assembly, but lawyers for the mayors disagree and have asked a court to decide.

“I’m confident that this is just an attempt to get more attention and to cast more doubt on the process, and to try and paint me and other mayors as the villains,” Rhodes-Conway said. “When in fact, what we’re actually trying to do is defend democracy.”

Democrats say the Wisconsin review is yet another effort to justify Trump’s lies about widespread fraud costing him the 2020 election.

“What this is, is an effort to perpetuate the big lie,” said Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul, a Democrat.

“I think this is really about 2022 and 2024,” Kaul said. “I mean, when the insurrection happened, I was hopeful that we would see people who have been attacking our democratic institutions realize they had gone way too far, and take a step back. But I think what we’ve seen is that even though the insurrection ended, the spirit of the insurrection has remained with us. And that is in the halls of state legislatures it’s in these fake investigations like the one going on here.”

“This is an effort to reduce confidence in our election results try to ultimately potentially overturn an election,” he said.

Wisconsin review reminiscent of Arizona

Election experts characterized Wisconsin as just the latest in a growing list of states continuing to respond to the lies of Trump and the demands of the Republican base that believers those lies.

“We see repeatedly in Wisconsin all over the country for that matter is just an effort, because people are unhappy with the results, to try to find anything that could raise doubt to delegitimize an election and actually harm our democracy,” Becker said.

“It’s the same story in Arizona with Cyber Ninjas,” he said, referring to the Florida company inexperienced in ballot review that Arizona state senators hired to conduct their review. “It’s the same story with efforts in Michigan and Pennsylvania and Georgia. Even those who are highly incentivized to try to prove that there was fraud the outcome was wrong. They can’t do it even 400 days after the election.”

Like Arizona and other states still conducting partisan reviews of the 2020 election, Wisconsin and its counties repeatedly audited the election results immediately after last year’s contest.

One key difference between Arizona and Wisconsin, Becker said, is that in Arizona, some Republicans — including local officials in Maricopa County — were willing to “tell their voters the truth” that Biden won.

“In Wisconsin, we don’t see many people like that. We don’t see many people have the courage” to admit that reality.

One Republican who has acknowledged reality is state Sen. Kathy Bernier of Chippewa Falls. Bernier is a former county clerk, which means she oversaw local elections.

Bernier has been critical of how the 2020 election was conducted. But she has also defended Wisconsin’s processes, saying there are checks to prevent fraud. And she said undercutting Republican voters’ confidence in the process could hurt the party moving forward.

“If they don’t have confidence in the electoral process, they’re not going to come out and vote and, and primarily it’s going to harm a Republicans,” Bernier said.

“So it’s Republicans, including Donald J. Trump, who need, need to say, ‘OK, let’s stop, let’s move forward. Let’s correct election laws where we need to, where we need to provide safeguards and let’s move forward onto the next election.'”

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