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Election expert says unwillingness of some Republicans to accept results is unprecedented

Division between the parties about what happened in Wisconsin's 2020 election has been an impediment to progress, says UW politics professor Barry Burden.
Maayan Silver
Division between the parties about what happened in Wisconsin's 2020 election has been an impediment to progress, says UW politics professor Barry Burden.

As Wisconsin heads into midterm elections, GOP legislators continue partisan probes of the 2020 election, sowing doubt in some conservatives that the election was fair.

That’s despite recounts, lawsuits and audits that confirmed both the results and that the election had negligible amounts of fraud.

UW politics professor Barry Burden, director of the Elections Research Center, says, "Really in modern times, we've seen nothing like what has happened in Wisconsin, and nationally, since the 2020 election."

He continues, "The unwillingness of most of one party to accept the results and to continue pushing with audits and investigations and questions and subpoenas and other efforts to try to keep their concerns alive, is really new and doesn't have any precedent. And I think it is not well supported by the facts of the election."

Burden says the 2016 election in Wisconsin was also a very close one, and perhaps even more surprising because Donald Trump won the state despite trailing in the polls, and despite Democrats having won the state’s presidential nod since the 1980s.

“Despite all of that you didn't see protests in the street; fake sets of electors signing certificates at the Capitol; many lawsuits, investigations, you know, so-called experts testifying before the state Legislature or anything like that. So, this is an unprecedented set of steps that I think are likely to keep people's suspicions about the election alive rather than resolve them," he says.

One person leading the charge in terms of investigations in Wisconsin is former Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman. "He was appointed by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos to lead an investigation, given a budget of about $700,000, and now has essentially an open-ended contract to pursue the investigation wherever it goes," he says.

Burden notes Gableman has been skeptical of Biden's win in Wisconsin from the outset, raising questions at a rally right after the election about whether Biden was the rightful victor. He continues to appear at Republican events around the state. All of the staff Gableman has hired to man his investigation are either loyal Trump supporters or people who have expressed doubt or deny the outcome of the election.

The other investigation, which Burden says is sort of working in tandem, is led by Rep. Janel Brandtjen, the state Assembly elections committee chair. She has been inviting in skeptics and conspiracy theorists from around the country to testify, cooperating with the Gableman investigation in some ways but on different pages in other ways, Burden says.

Both of them have been issuing subpoenas, collecting information demanding materials from municipal and election officials around the state. “Neither of them seem anywhere close to producing a convincing report or conclusion anytime soon,” he says.

As a political scientist and expert on election administration, Burden says there are things he would like to know going forward about the 2020 election, via a careful, thorough bipartisan review.

"I would welcome a committee in the state Legislature where both Democrats and Republicans are involved to bring in actual election officials who have a hand in what happens and understand what works and what doesn't work about elections," he says.

Burden thinks some questions need to be resolved probably by modifying state law or providing clear directions to election workers. "One of the issues that continue to come up is how much local clerks are able to help voters who submit absentee ballots but don't provide complete information on the absentee ballot envelope. What if they include their name and street address and city but don't include the zip code or something like that? Are clerks allowed to look into the voter's record and complete the information for them?"

Burden says some clerks did that in 2020 because they were instructed that they were permitted to do that by the Wisconsin elections commission. “But it's become a source, I think, of confusion and some inconsistency from one community to the next. So, it's areas like those where things some resolution would be helpful.”

Burden says that the parties are so far apart in the state Legislature and are really unwilling or unable to work on these kinds of issues together. It's been an impediment to moving forward in a productive way.

“Wisconsin is not alone in this,” he says. “There's so much division between the parties about views of what happened in 2020.”

Burden indicates there's a lot to worry about, including violence against election officials and threats and abuse. For example, he notes there were recently violent threats against Georgia election officials that happened after election day in 2020, which has resulted in criminal charges.

“Some of our local election officials in Wisconsin have told me, as part of a research project I was doing, that they received more threatening or hostile messages than they had in in 2016. That will drive some good people out of office, unfortunately, people who have experience and have proven themselves as good election administrators," he says.

Maayan is a WUWM news reporter.
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