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Wisconsin sheriff seeks investigation of nursing home voting

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Susan Bence
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A Wisconsin sheriff who supports former President Donald Trump accused the bipartisan state Elections Commission of breaking the law during last year's election, taking the unusual step Thursday of detailing the allegations publicly even though no charges have been filed.

Racine County Sheriff Christopher Schmaling called on the Wisconsin Department of Justice to investigate the commission’s decision last year to tell local elections officials not to send poll workers into nursing homes to assist residents with voting during the pandemic.

The move is the latest example of Trump supporters seeking to undermine confidence in the election in a critical battleground state that President Joe Biden carried last year. The state justice department has already said it has no plans to pursue the case, the sheriff said.

In a 75-minute presentation streamed on his Facebook page, Schmaling detailed what he said was evidence collected from the Ridgewood Care Center in Racine County. Trump issued a statement encouraging his supporters to watch the presentation.

The former president has wrongly claimed that he won Wisconsin, even though there is no evidence of fraud that would have overturned his loss by nearly 21,000 votes to Biden.

Schmaling said the families of eight residents told investigators they believed their love ones did not have the capacity to vote but ballots were cast for them. It’s not known who any of them voted for in the election.

“I don’t know how or who they voted for,” Schmaling said. “I didn’t ask because it doesn’t matter.”

The elections commission, controlled by an equal number of Republicans and Democrats, in March 2020 voted 5-1 that poll workers could not be sent into nursing homes to help with voting due to a safer-at-home order issued by Gov. Tony Evers. Evers' order closed all non-essential businesses early in the COVID-19 pandemic. The order came at a time when nursing homes were severely limiting who could come into their facilities, often not even allowing immediate family members inside.

State law requires local election clerks to send so-called special voting deputies to nursing homes to give residents an opportunity to vote. After trying to make two visits, the deputies can mail absentee ballots to the residents instead.

An audit released last week, conducted by the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau, determined that the commission broke the law when it told clerks in 2020 not to send or attempt to send deputies into nursing homes. Instead, the commission directed clerks to mail absentee ballots to people in nursing homes who had requested them.

Schmaling, a Republican who was first elected sheriff in 2010 and supported Trump in 2020, said his call for an investigation into the commission's actions was not politically motivated. He said his department only got involved after the daughter of a nursing home resident who didn't think she was able to vote, but did, came to him with concerns.

State justice department spokeswoman Gillian Drummond said that all allegations of election fraud are taken seriously and thoroughly investigated, but that it was significant that the Racine County district attorney's office had not filed any charges. She said the justice department was not aware of any similar allegations elsewhere in the state.

Only four people out of more than 3 million who cast ballots in the 2020 presidential race in Wisconsin have been charged with election fraud and none of those cases are related to voting in nursing homes.

Wisconsin Elections Commission administrator Meagan Wolfe said in a statement that the discussion about special voting deputies happened over 18 months ago and all occurred in public meetings. She also referred to additional information about the topic that is available on the commission's website.

Republicans who have long been critical of the agency they voted to create, including Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, called for Wolfe to resign in the wake of the sheriff's allegations. She does not have a vote on the commission and its initial action halting special voting deputies had bipartisan support.

Wolfe brushed off Vos' statement with an additional statement later, saying it would be "irresponsible to spend any energy engaging a blatantly partisan and coordinated attempt to baselessly challenge the integrity of democracy in our great state.”

Last week's audit bureau report made 48 recommendations for improvements in how elections are run, but did not find any widespread fraud or abuse that would have affected the outcome of the election. Republican lawmakers said the audit showed that the election was “safe and secure," even if mistakes were made.

Wisconsin also has an ongoing Republican-ordered investigation into the election being led by former conservative Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman. Senate Republicans this week said they were also launching an investigation into issues raised by the nonpartisan audit.

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This story was updated to correct that the Racine County sheriff’s name is Christopher Schmaling, not Charles Schmaling.

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