American Democracy Under Threat: Battleground Wisconsin



Wisconsin has seemingly seen it all since the 2020 elections. There have been multiple lawsuits, recounts, and ill-managed audits of the votes, including an official one conducted by an avowed election denier. A sheriff is demanding that members of the Elections Commision be prosecuted.  Former President Trump turned his wrath on state level lawmakers and election workers, demanding the results be thrown out, and U.S. Senator Ron Johnson tried to pass a fake slate of electors to Vice President Pence. All of these efforts have failed to date, but like other states where conspiracy theories and paranoia have taken over, the effects will be long lasting, impacting the midterms and the 2024 election. Philip Rocco, associate professor of political science at Marquette University has said that the avalanche of attacks questioning the integrity of the elections creates “an atmosphere of procedural chaos going into Election Day.” “Just in general, it’s created a dangerous environment for elections to occur in.”

​​But still, the conspiracy theories continue to spread, in large part by Republican politicians and party officials. Representative Janel Brandtjen, the chairwoman of the State Assembly’s campaigns-and-elections committee, regularly holds hearings propagating conspiracy theories, like the idea that mules stuffed ballot boxes, a false claim by the Texas-based organization, True the Vote. And six elected officials were identified as being on the Oath Keepers membership list, with one resigning after being harassed.

The current state of political affairs stands in stark contrast to Wisconsin’s history. It was the first state to ratify the 19th amendment giving women the right to vote and elected officials from Wisconsin authored much of the New Deal and then later Medicare. And years later, a Republican governor expanded collective bargaining for public employees, and then a Democratic governor implemented same-day voter registration. The state was largely bipartisan and democracy focused. And then President Obama was elected and the Tea Party arrived, taking over much of the state government. Wisconsin became a petri dish of conservative issues. Collective bargaining for public employees was abolished and a new Republican electoral map was created in secret.

When Democrat Tony Evers beat Scott Walker in the 2018 gubernatorial race, the legislature stripped the governor and the attorney general (also a Democrat) of some of their powers. Right now, the main thing standing between Wisconsin voters and the elected officials who want to make voting much more difficult is Evers, who has vetoed several punitive voting measures. These bills would allow observers to stand within three feet of poll workers, threatening workers with jail time for obstructing an observer’s view; require elderly and disabled voters confined to their homes to show a photo I.D. to receive an absentee ballot; and give the legislature more control over the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC.) The WEC, a bipartisan body, was created by a Republican legislature in 2016. The WEC ensures that voting laws are complied with and maintains the voter rolls. The current Republican candidate for governor, Tim Michels, who is endorsed by Trump, refuses to say that President Biden won the election and has vowed to abolish the WEC.

What’s happening in Wisconsin is part of a national Republican strategy to take control of election administration and to make it harder to vote.

Fake Electors
On the Saturday after the presidential election, hundreds of Trump supporters gathered for a Stop the Steal rally in Milwaukee. The keynote speaker, former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman, who would later run a taxpayer funded investigation into the 2020 election, said, “Our elected leaders have allowed unelected bureaucrats at the Wisconsin Elections Commission to steal our vote.” Bob Spindell, one of six commissioners on the WEC, later attended a similar rally at the state capitol, where he said, “There’s no evidence vote fraud did not occur.”

A week later, Spindell and nine other Republican Party officials, including the chairman of the state party, met in secret in the capitol, in a room reserved for them by Scott Fitzgerald, then the State Senate majority leader and now a U.S. congressman, and held a ceremony installing themselves as Wisconsin’s electors for Donald Trump. The 10 signed “legal” documents certifying that they were “duly elected and qualified Electors,” which they sent to the president of the U.S. Senate, the National Archives, and the Wisconsin secretary of state. One of the fake electors, Pam Travis, 7th Congressional District vice chairman for the Republican Party of Wisconsin, is also on staff for Senator Ron Johnson’s campaign for reelection.

Ron Johnson Leads the Way  
Senator Ron Johnson has been a pivotal figure in the conspiracy theory and election denial industry. When the pandemic hit the U.S. in 2020, Johnson was a proponent of drugs like hydroxychloroquine and Ivermectin as early treatment options. When regulators revoked emergency use authorization for hydroxychloroquine, former President Trump’s administration turned to Johnson in an unsuccessful effort to secure reauthorization.

A few days before the January 6 insurrection, Johnson, along with several other Republican senators, called for a special audit of the 2020 election, saying, “We are not acting to thwart the democratic  process — we are acting to protect it. The fact of the matter is we have an unsustainable state of affairs in this country where we have tens of millions of people who do not view this election result as legitimate.” He has called for the 2020 election to be decertified and for the Wisconsin Elections Commission to be disbanded and members investigated for prosecution. All of which would send the Wisconsin electoral system into chaos.

An aide for Johnson told then-Vice President Mike Pence’s staff that he wanted to hand-deliver to Pence fake elector votes from Wisconsin, according to text messages revealed at a meeting of the January 6 select committee. Johnson spokeswoman Alexa Henning downplayed the texts after they were publicly revealed during the committee’s hearing in Washington, but did not deny that Johnson had wanted to hand-deliver the slate of fake electors to Pence.

Johnson has described the participants of the January 6 insurrection as having a  “jovial, friendly, earnest demeanor” and used his time during a Senate hearing to suggest that the participants were actually “fake Trump protestors” and “provocateurs.” He’s also said that, “To call what happened on January 6 an armed insurrection, I just think is not accurate.”

Neither Johnson nor gubernatorial candidate Tim Michels, who is endorsed by Trump, has promised to accept the results of the 2022 election. It appears they are setting the groundwork to claim the election is rigged in case they lose.

Targeting the WEC
Much of the chaos and disruption in Wisconsin has been driven by Trump, who has been involved at the state legislator and oversight level. A key body targeted by the election denial efforts is the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC) which oversees the state election process and keeps the voter rolls. During the pandemic, the WEC expanded use of ballot drop off boxes and allowed nursing home patients to be assisted with their ballots. These actions have led to calls by Trump, Johnson, Assembly Leader Robin Vos, and many other election deniers to call for the dismantling of the commission and even prosecution of the commissioners. Current Republican candidates for office have endorsed this idea, with the attorney general candidate vowing to prosecute if elected.

Racine County sheriff, Christopher Schmaling, has become a national name in the election conspiracy theory movement. The sheriff, who is associated with the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA), made headlines for recommending criminal charges against a majority of the Wisconsin Election Commission and demanding that the district attorneys in the commissioners’ home counties press charges. Schmaling spoke at a CSPOA event which featured presentations from several Republican state lawmakers as well as fringe election deniers including MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, CEO Patrick Byrne, and Jovan Hutton Pulitzer, a former treasure hunter who has claimed to have developed a technology that uses microscopic imaging to find cheating in elections.

The sheriffs and other speakers at the event pushed discredited voter fraud allegations from the documentary “2000 Mules,” which asserts evidence of a vast network of illegal vote smugglers based on True The Vote’s vague cell phone data and clipped surveillance footage. A fundraising effort for more surveillance cameras and other tools to allow sheriffs to watch voters as they cast their ballots was also announced.

Ironically, Robin Vos, the longest-serving elected official in the state, who has supported Trump and pushed through bills to weaken voter rights since the 2020 election hasn’t done enough for Trump. Trump wanted him to overturn the election in Wisconsin and Vos refused. Criticizing Vos became part of the Republican’s base identity. Two candidates for governor launched their campaigns as referendums on Vos. Dozens of county GOP officials passed resolutions calling for Vos’ resignation.To appease Trump and the Republican base, Vos instituted a state-funded investigation led by former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman. Trump endorsed Vos’ opponent anyway, dubbing Vos a RINO — Republican in Name Only. “The Democrats haven’t even bothered to put up a candidate to run against Vos because he does everything they say — he is their dream candidate — a Republican who does the job of a Democrat,” Trump said in announcing his endorsement. Vos won his primary against a little-known candidate by barely 300 votes.

Bogus Audits
Judge Michael Gableman, appointed by Vos to investigate the 2020 election and funded by the state legislature, has said that the election was stolen and has called for jailing the mayors of Green Bay and Madison. He’s also spoken at a rally led by election deniers including Sheriff David Clarke from the CSPOA and Michael Flynn, former national security advisor to Trump. In his speech, Gableman said, “They threw the rules away in an effort to defeat Donald Trump and elect Joe Biden.” Gableman also joined a fringe group of Republicans in calling for the decertification of Wisconsin’s 2020 election and the recall of the state’s 10 Electoral College votes.

The election review was widely derided by Democratic and Republican officials, election workers and judges for unprofessionalism, inability to prove its fantastical claims and lack of transparency. WEC member Ann Jacobs tweeted that the review had ended “with a whimper, not with a shout.”

In an order issued by Dane County Judge Frank Remington, he wrote that the work of Gableman and his Office of Special Counsel (OSC) was practically nonexistent. “OSC accomplished nothing,” Remington wrote. “It kept none of the weekly progress reports the Wisconsin State Assembly required it to keep. It recorded no interviews with witnesses. It gathered no measurable data. It organized no existing data into any analytical format. It generated no reports based on any special expertise.” “It did commence lawsuits against other parts of our state and local government, although at time of this writing, OSC has received no relief,” he continued. “Instead, it gave its employees code names like ‘coms’ or ‘3,’ apparently for the sole purpose of emailing back and forth about news articles and drafts of speeches. It printed copies of reports that better investigators had already written, although there is no evidence any person connected with OSC ever read these reports, let alone critically analyzed their factual and legal bases to draw his or her own principled conclusions.” Vos ended the investigation.

Even though his investigation turned up zero new evidence, in testimony before an Assembly committee this past Spring, Gableman suggested Wisconsin’s 2020 election results should be decertified — an unconstitutional and impossible legal maneuver.

Last week, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that Gableman started working for the conservative Thomas More Society after he was fired by Vos.

Committing a Crime to Prove a Crime
Wisconsin resident Harry Wait, a leader in H.O.T. Government, an organization dedicated to proving election fraud with a focus on absentee ballots, drew national attention in July when he announced that he’d gone on a state website and arranged for absentee ballots in the names of the Racine mayor, the state Assembly speaker and several others to be sent to his home. Authorities charged Wait with election fraud, a misdemeanor, and misappropriation of ID information, a felony. Wait became a hero to the members of H.O.T. and other election deniers and, illustrating his contempt for the WEC, declared, “I’m going to make a declaration today that WEC is our enemy,” he told the crowd inside the bar.

Ballot Boxes are Gone
The Wisconsin Supreme Court has played a key role in the restriction of  access to voting. In July, the court upheld a ban on nearly all drop boxes and barred voters from entrusting anyone, including family members, to submit their ballots. A day after the ruling, Trump hailed “the amazing Wisconsin Supreme Court decision.”

A group of plaintiffs represented by the right-wing Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL) filed a lawsuit to end the use of ballot boxes, claiming that they are not explicitly allowed under Wisconsin law. WILL also asserted that state law required a voter — and no one else — to return their own ballot. An attorney for the group, Rick Esenberg, argued that regulators had issued unlawful guidance allowing ballots to be delivered on behalf of others, including potentially “paid activists, paid canvassers who go around and collect ballots and place them in a mailbox.” Those allegations echoed a widely circulated conspiracy theory about people, labeled mules, delivering heaps of fraudulent ballots. The Wisconsin Supreme Court agreed. Roughly 2 million residents voted absentee in the November 2020 election, shattering the previous record. The option is no longer available to Wisconsin voters.

Insurrectionist on the Ballot
The midterm race for U.S. House in Wisconsin’s 3rd District takes on national significance as Democrats face a steep uphill battle to hold on to the House this fall. Republicans have chosen, with no primary challenger, insurrectionist Derrick Van Orden. Two months after Derrick Van Orden lost his 2020 congressional race, he joined “stop the steal” rioters on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol—and he paid for the trip with money left over from his campaign. Van Orden, a former Navy SEAL and small-time actor, has previously acknowledged attending the January 6 rally, but has repeatedly claimed he never entered the Capitol grounds. However, social media posts from the riot suggest that isn’t true. Van Orden’s 2022 bid has already drawn major endorsements. U.S. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, as well as House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA), and conference chair Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY) have  endorsed Van Orden. McCarthy, Scalise, and Stefanik all objected to the election results, as did two Wisconsin Republican congressmen who have also endorsed Van Orden—Rep. Tom Tiffany and Scott Fitzgerald.

People are Afraid 
The shenanigans by state and national leaders around trying to prove that 2020 elections were filled with fraud is having a tremendous impact on the voters and activists in Wisconsin. “People are afraid,” said Milwaukee native Bruce Colburn, a union activist and lead organizer of Souls to the Polls, a traditional get-out-the-vote drive in Black communities. “Are they going to do something wrong? Then you have all these lawyers and people making complaints in the court system for nothing. And it makes it more difficult. It scares people. If they get something wrong or they don’t do it exactly right, something’s going to happen to them.” Celestine Jeffreys, the clerk in Green Bay, said, “Observers are a very important part of the process. They lend transparency; they help educate people. They themselves become educated. But sometimes observers have anointed themselves as the people who will uncover problems. And oftentimes observers are not equipped with the information in order to do that.” Jeffreys further described poll watchers on primary day this year as “aggressive and interfering.” Rather than being cordial and unobtrusive, she said, some observers were repeatedly questioning voting officials and disrupting the process.

Election Denial Groups in Wisconsin
As in other states, an election denial industry has sprung up since the 2020 presidential elections. everal of the national groups such as the Tea Party Patriots, which has recruited poll watchers and trained civilians to exercise oversight on the elections, and True the Vote, which filed and dropped a lawsuit alleging voter fraud and even testified in front of the Wisconsin Assembly, have been active in the state. State-based groups have been most influential in spreading election lies and helping to pass legislation that makes it harder for people to vote, although much has been vetoed by the governor. The state-based groups are profiled here.

H.O.T. Government (Honest, Open, Transparent)
Blog (now inactive):
Wisconsin Patriots Toolbox:

H.O.T Government (Honest, Open, Transparent) appears to have become active in the Spring of 2021 with a mission “to provide and support honest, open and transparent government with the intent of allowing citizens to monitor, assess, assist, and hold it accountable.” The group’s Telegram Channel first posted on May 12, 2021. Their first video posted to right-wing platform Rumble was uploaded on April 1 of that year. H.O.T is primarily concerned with proving that fraud was rampant in the 2020 elections and making changes to the Wisconsin election system that could have significant impact on the midterms and 2024 elections. They hold regular meetings near Kenosha, including poll watching training sessions.

The H.O.T. Telegram channel is filled with anti-CRT content, anti-LGBTQ+ lies about “grooming,” and anti-choice content. It also expresses support for Kyle Rittenhouse, who has become a darling of far-right extremists, prominent extremist election deniers like Steve Bannon and Candace Owen, and the spread of conspiracy theories.

H.O.T. leader Jim McClain has signed most of the group’s press releases and open letters to government officials, while supporters Jay Stone, Sandy Weidner, former Alderman for Racine, and Kim Morrison have acted as plaintiffs in lawsuits. Stone has been credited with being one of the most influential in Wisconsin’s efforts to find fraud in the 2020 election. Perhaps their best-known supporter is Harry Wait who turned himself in after committing election fraud to show how vulnerable Wisconsin’s absentee ballot system is. A judge has entered a not guilty plea on Wait’s behalf, court records show. State Representative Janel Brandtjen issued a press release in support of this case and another brought by the Thomas More Society alleging misconduct on the part of the Elections Commission regarding nursing home patients as voters.

H.O.T. uses the website Wisconsin Patriots Toolbox (WPT) to spread the word about their activities and connect with other organizations. WPT’s mission is “to provide in one place many of the tools needed by patriots in Wisconsin to participate meaningfully in the political process.” WPT was founded by Joe and Diane Bast, formerly of the Heartland Institute, a think-tank known for its work with Philip Morris in the 1990s denying the harmful effects of cigarette smoking, and today it’s known for pushing climate change denial. WPT claims that it doesn’t organize activities or events but simply serves as a clearinghouse for like-minded organizations and helps to aggregate events and news relevant to H.O.T., as well as a number of other conservative groups throughout the state. A list of Wisconsin conservative and libertarian organizations can be found on their website. And their allies section lists the Wisconsin County Republican parties and a number of anti-LGBTQ+, anti-immigrant, and anti-Muslim organizations, including  hate groups like ACT for America and the American Family Association.

Patriot Party of Wisconsin (PPW)
Twitter:  @party_wi

The Patriot Party of Wisconsin was formed in December of 2020, describing themselves on their Telegram channel, as “We the people of Wisconsin are building a conservative political movement within the Republican party of Wisconsin.” Patriot Parties sprang up around the country in response to former President Trump’s announcement that he was considering starting a third political party, distancing himself from the Republican establishment. He later decided against the idea.

A now defunct website claimed that PPW members attended the January 6 “Stop the Steal” rally in D.C., which later devolved into an insurrection at the Capitol, “doing sign up, advertising, networking, and organizing with the national team.” Videos of the January 6 riots were also posted.

A member of the PPW Telegram channel, Robert Glisczinski, ran and lost in the 2022 primary for the  71st District in Wisconsin. Glisczinski called COVID-related shutdowns across the state a “disaster” that was followed by a presidential election “fraught with irregularities and outright lawlessness,” and is also calling for stronger “election integrity.”

At one time, PPW had a Facebook page but it was taken down, and the Twitter account is not active. What remains of the PPW is a Telegram Channel that allows for the decentralized association of individuals and groups from across the state. The channel is filled with racist and anti-LGBTQ comments, and QAnon and other conspiracy theories. Often the channel veers into inflammatory and even violent rhetoric when discussing Democrats, Republicans perceived as “RINO’s” (Republicans In Name Only) and the LGBTQ+ community.

The group frequently posts content from H.O.T. Government (Honest, Open, Transparent), a group committed to spreading the conspiracy theory that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump and undermining the electorate’s faith in our election system. They also work diligently against CRT, the LGBTQ+ community, and reproductive rights, and support the Election Integrity Network with Cleta Mitchell.

The Admin of the Telegram Channel, “Rose,” appears to be a bot that automatically replies to certain prompts such as: Tony Evers, Obama, Facebook, Elon Musk, etc. Using a bot with this kind of function would be in the interest of someone trying to spread propaganda or disinformation.

Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL)

The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL) was formed in 2011 to address their perception of an imbalance in the availability of conservative public interest law firms versus liberal. “WILL was founded to ride to the sound of the guns – to go into battle to protect the freedom of Wisconsinites” and describes its mission as: “Through litigation, education, and participation in public discourse, WILL advances the public interest in the rule of law, individual liberty, constitutional government, and a robust civil society.” WILL has litigated to protect the Republican gerrymander in Wisconsin, to stop gender non-conforming care at schools (in partnership with Alliance Defending Freedom, an SPLC-designated anti-LGBTQ hate group), against CRT in schools, against COVID-related health measures, and remove voters from the voting rolls. They also sued the city of Madison on behalf of a white man who claimed racial discrimination regarding quotas on a civilian police oversight board.

Since the 2020 election cycle WILL has been working within a broader network of conservative groups pushing election fraud misinformation and “election integrity.” WILL conducted a 11-month long audit on the election results to see if there was evidence of widespread voter fraud. Their audit found that “it is almost certain in Wisconsin’s 2020 election the number of votes that did not comply with existing legal requirements exceeded Joe Biden’s margin of victory.” However, they also found that “There was no evidence of widespread voter fraud. In all likelihood, more eligible voters cast ballots for Joe Biden than Donald Trump” but still made recommendations that indicated that there were still questions about the election results.

WILL’s most significant recent victory came in July 2022 when the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that the Elections Commission should not have allowed ballot dropboxes during the pandemic. Dropboxes are now illegal in Wisconsin sparking serious concerns from disability and voting rights advocates. In a dissenting opinion, Justice Ann Walsh Bradley wrote that the court’s decision “has seemingly taken the opportunity to make it harder to vote or to inject confusion into the process whenever it has been presented with the opportunity. Without justification, [the majority] fans the flames of electoral doubt that threaten our democracy.”

Wisconsin Proud Boys (WPB)
Mt. Pleasant
Possibly other locations

The Proud Boys and all of their chapters describe themselves as “proud western chauvinists who will not apologize for creating the modern world.” The groups often espouse xenophobic, Islamophobic, misogynist views while also using homophobic and racist language despite having members of multiple races and allegedly some who are gay. The Proud Boys national level leadership and many of lieutenants were arrested and charged (some have already been convicted) in connection with the January 6th Insurrection, and later charged with seditious conspiracy following the January 6th Committee hearings. Trump famously asked that Proud Boys “Stand Back and Stand By” during a debate before the 2020 election when asked to denounce white supremacist groups. Proud Boys chapters across the nation have shown themselves eager to protest, engage in violence, and be the protectors of our electoral system. The group has previously had members with alleged ties to the violent Atomwaffen Division and The Base.

The Wisconsin chapter of the Proud Boys was started in 2017 allegedly by “Brad” and “Eric” who only wanted their “first” names used in public. They and several other white, 20-something males met at a bar in Madison to talk about the world in general and speak freely about their support of Trump, and from there the group grew. WPB, as the national organization, self-identifies as Western Chauvinists and generally believes that western men should be the pillars of society while women are meant to be revered yet subservient to them and that violent masculinity is necessary for a stable society. Members of WPB supported Kyle Rittenhouse after he was arrested for murder and weapons charges.

Daniel Berry, a first degree member of the Wisconsin Chapter, came forward with details about what the group stood for behind closed doors. He alleged that racism, homophobia, and sexism were prominent within the group and that bullying was common among members. He also claims that they target veterans for recruitment. Their Telegram channel is full of homophobic, racist, and sexist imagery and text post. A post on June 19th, 2022 also admits that members range “to the political extremes” but that it doesn’t bother them. The structure of their Telegram chat log suggests that there may be a separate channel or group chat for members only where they coordinate around events and actions.

While the WPB appears to have embraced the conspiracy theories around the 2020 election and are committed to the idea that the 2020 presidential election was rigged for Biden, there isn’t much documentation of their involvement in civic activities and disruptions. In November 2021, they caused the Beloit School District to shut all of its buildings out of fear for student and staff safety after they threatened to protest at schools over mask mandates. “Tell me where I need to be and I am there,” one WPB member wrote on Telegram about mask protests across the country. In November 2020, former sheriff David Clarke said at a Republican party “Stop the Steal” event, “We need a chapter of the Proud Boys right here in Wisconsin because they’re the only ones with the courage to get in the face of Black Lives Matter.” Clarke was an early leader of the national Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA) which is filled with conspiracy theories and committed to investigating “voter fraud” across the nation.

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