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Episode 8: 2020

Swing State episode about the 2020 election
Alex Brandon, Jen Meyer, Shakh Aivazov
Associated Press
This episode of "Swing State of the Union" is all about the 2020 election.

The 2020 election may go down as one of the most contentious elections in U.S. history. We explore how that happened.

This is Swing State of the Union, a podcast all about why Wisconsin is so important to U.S. politics.

Today's episode is all about the 2020 presidential election and its aftermath. On this episode, we'll focus on the effect COVID-19 had on the election and various efforts to overturn the election results in the following years.

But we'll start with the months after the 2016 election.

Newscast: “Donald Trump wins Wisconsin, surpassing the 270 electoral votes he would need to take the presidency. That is what we are seeing on this screen. It has been a stunning night. It has been a historic night.”

Leading up to the 2016 election, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin hadn't voted for a Republican presidential candidate since the 1980s. All three were considered part of the “blue wall,” a collection of states that had consistently voted for Democratic presidential nominees in recent decades, and many assumed that would continue. Instead, all three voted for Republican Donald Trump in 2016, securing his win.

In Wisconsin, 23 counties that voted for Democrat Barack Obama in 2012 flipped for Trump in 2016, and the state went for a Republican nominee for the first time since 1984. Democratic circles were searching for a reason why Wisconsin flipped for Trump. Some pointed to the fact that Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton didn't visit as a candidate.

Angela Lang founded Black Leaders Organizing for Communities, or BLOC, a year after the election. The organization is dedicated to improving the quality of life for Black Milwaukeeans through political advocacy and education, and she explains how BLOC was conceived during the fallout from the 2016 election.

“I think a lot of folks, quite frankly, had a lot of hot takes about what happened. And one of those hot takes someone said to my face, a white woman, she wagged her finger in my face and said, ‘If you people would have just voted, we wouldn't be here.’ That's the wrong thing to say to me. But then also I was like, ‘That is the wrong narrative’ and if we don't get to the real issues, we're just doomed to repeat this in 2020,” Lang says.

Over the next few years, BLOC knocked doors for elections from governor to school board. But 2020 was going to be the big test, an opportunity for the organization to come full circle from its origin in the last presidential election cycle.

“We knew it was going to be a big year. We were like, ‘It's 2020.’ We knew the pressures of 2016, so we knew kind of that shadow of like, ‘This is going to be an aggressive year.’ We had plans. We had all these doors we were going to knock. We had all these plans of hiring all these people, including a field director,” Lang says.

Then the world shut down.

Newscast: “Good evening and thank you for joining us. We are going to begin right now with breaking news, because the World Health Organization has declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic.”

All of the sudden, people were asked to stay home. Businesses closed, workers were laid off en masse and every day came news of new COVID-19 cases throughout the state. Everything was up in the air. When will I get to go to the grocery store again? Will I have a job next week? What might happen to me if I catch this virus?

Oh, and also, there was an election coming up.

Less than two weeks after Governor Tony Evers issued a “safer at home” order asking Wisconsinites not to leave their homes unless absolutely necessary, the state's presidential primary was held in Milwaukee, a city of nearly 600,000 people. Only five voting locations were open due to a lack of poll workers.

One of those locations was Lang’s alma mater, where lines of voters zigzagged through the surrounding neighborhood.

“It was heartbreaking, you know, to see the pictures of people standing in line. And I think we've all seen those viral photos. People were handmaking masks at the time,” Lang says.

Joe Biden would win the Wisconsin primary decisively, taking over 60% of the vote. A day later Bernie Sanders, Biden's last remaining challenger suspended his campaign, setting the stage for Biden to run against Donald Trump in the November election. And in that time, the COVID-19 pandemic was quickly politicized.

According to Pew Research polling, by late March, 83% of Republicans said Trump was doing an excellent or good job at handling the pandemic, compared to just 18% of Democrats. Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and other Republican leaders regularly didn't wear masks, while Biden and top Democrats did. Trump downplayed the need for masking for months and criticized Biden for wearing one. In October, Trump and the first lady both got COVID-19 and the then-president was hospitalized.

Democratic officials decided the Democratic National Convention would take place virtually in an effort to mitigate spread of the virus. A scaled-down Republican National Convention would take place in person.

And elections themselves were also changing drastically. Barry Burden, a professor of political science and director of the Elections Research Center at UW-Madison, explains how in Wisconsin, and across the nation, municipalities were seeking outside funding to administer elections safely.

“Election officials were scrambling for resources to try to pull off an election that they had never run before in this way. They were administering more mail ballots than ever before, a massive number of those. There were concerns about the Postal Service being able to meet delivery standards on time with such a rush and some cutbacks that were happening to the Postal Service. They were trying to figure out ways to keep poll workers and voters safe, and many poll workers had decided not to serve because they were concerned about their health. It's an older core of people, typically in their 60s and 70s, who do that work. So they were scrambling for resources, getting poll workers from new places and applying for, in some cases, private funding to help pay for things. And that was true in Wisconsin, where several big cities got large grants, but also many municipalities around the state got private funding from nonprofits to pay for things like plexiglass shields to protect poll workers and voters, sanitary wipes, gel, drop boxes to collect paper ballots outdoors, all those kinds of things,” Burden says.

In addition, unprecedented numbers of voters were choosing to vote absentee, as we discussed in Episode 4. For organizers like Angela Lang, this made it difficult to know what to expect on Election Day, even after months of scrambling to organize voters.

“I think folks have a gut feeling of what's going to happen that day. I remember having a gut feeling in 2016 at about 3:00, and I was like, ‘Yeah, I'm not going to go to a watch party.’ Like, I think there's a certain time of the day where you're like, “OK, I think we got this or we've been tracking numbers and turnout.’ And you couldn't really do that because everybody was voting by mail. And you couldn't really do a lot of exit polling and get like a real – it was just all those traditional norms were very difficult. So I think, for us, it was a lot of wait and see what happens.” Lang says.

That uncertainty remained throughout Election Night, as absentee votes in Milwaukee were tallied late into the night. But when voters woke up in the morning, the absentee votes were counted, and a tentative result was in.
Newscast: “Joe Biden is the apparent winner in Wisconsin, the apparent winner in Wisconsin. That would award him, if it does officially go to him, those 10 electoral votes.”

In early December, after recounts confirmed Biden's win in Wisconsin and nationwide, Trump still maintained that he had won.

“It was about fraud. This election was rigged. Everybody knows it,” Trump said.

In part because Wisconsin was so close, the Trump campaign was active in trying to overturn the states election results. Molly Beck, a politics reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel who covered the aftermath of the 2020 election, explains the lengths the Trump campaign went to, and how the Wisconsin Supreme Court narrowly sided against him.

“After the election, Trump and people who support Trump filed a bunch of lawsuits over the election, and Trump himself paid for two recounts – one in Dane County and one in Milwaukee County – and, in doing so, asked to throw out 100,000s of absentee ballots in those liberal-leaning counties. And if that had been successful, that would have, you know, shifted the result of Wisconsin's election and potentially the national election. The Supreme Court played a key role because they got all of those challenges and had to decide, you know, if there was any merit to them. It was particularly notable because the court at the time was controlled by conservative justices 4-3 and one of the conservative justices, Brian Hagedorn, sided with the liberal justices in rejecting these challenges,” Beck says.

But this didn't close the book on the 2020 election, and in some ways the fight was just getting started.

As Trump was giving speeches claiming the election was rigged, a group of Wisconsin Republicans were hatching a plan to officially certify the state's electoral college votes for Trump, in a way that, like so much of 2020, was unprecedented.

As we explained in Episode 1, Wisconsin is prized in presidential elections because of its 10 electoral votes. But per the rules of the electoral college, these votes aren't automatically given to the winner of the state. Technically, that's done by 10 individual people who sign paperwork certifying Wisconsin's results, which are then sent to the vice president to officially certify in the U.S. Senate. This process is necessary for the U.S. Constitution, but until 2020 had always functioned as a procedural formality.

But a group of 10 Wisconsin Republicans sought to turn this formality into a last-ditch effort to deliver Trump a victory in Wisconsin. The group sought to sign paperwork as the states legitimate electors certifying the election for Trump, along with groups in six other states planning to do the same. The plot is known as the “fake electors scheme.”

Molly Beck covered this scheme and its fallout in the years since 2020, and she joins us for an in-depth look.

Sam Woods: So, in the weeks after the 2020 election, we saw recounts, we saw lawsuits. But what was the “fake electors scheme?”

Molly Beck: So, after pretty much all of those lawsuits were wrapped up in, in fact, the day one of the bigger ones was wrapped up in December, in mid-December, the electors for Biden, the Democratic electors for Biden, met in the capital to certify Wisconsin's election and send along the 10 electoral votes that Wisconsin has, essentially. And at the same time, 10 Wisconsin Republicans met in the state Capitol too to do the same thing, but for Trump. The difference is they weren't actually electors for Trump, because Trump did not win the election. But they signed paperwork that falsely claimed to be electors. They sent it to the National Archives. They sent it along to then-Vice President Mike Pence to accept during the Congressional session on January 6th of 2021. And since then, we've learned a lot about the origin of this, and it turned out to be a plan that was crafted by a Trump attorney who actually is from Wisconsin. And it looks like some of the, you know, some of the first people involved in this plan were from Wisconsin, including a former Dane County Judge, Jim Troopas. It wasn't just Wisconsin Republicans doing this. There were Republicans in other states that did the same thing. And essentially, it was a legal argument that, if they signed all this paperwork and they could just get one lawsuit to be successful, then they would have the documents ready to go and they could just – then Pence could just declare Trump to be the winner. As we know, that is not what happened, and there was no legal basis to do that. And in several of the states, the people who signed this paperwork have been charged criminally.

Joy Powers: We'll get to the charges here in Wisconsin in just a moment, but was there any way that this could have been successful, at least, you know, in your understanding?

Beck: You know, I mean, there might be a world where it was successful, but I've not seen a basis for doing this since this happened. Trump did not win the election. It wasn't close nationally either, you know – close enough to bring into question whether there should be two sets of slates of electors for both candidates. You know, we've read a lot of private communication between people involved through the U.S. House Committee investigating the January 6th attack on the Capitol, and also here in Wisconsin through some civil lawsuit. And when you read that, it doesn't look like there was a belief that this was legally correct. It was more about just trying to win, you know, and trying to preserve power and overturn an election. You know, there have been Republicans here that have made the argument that there was an outstanding lawsuit at the U.S. Supreme Court, where it could have, you know, changed the outcome in Wisconsin. But up until then, there had been no indication by a court that any of these challenges were being accepted or given any merit. So, you know, in the years since this, I haven't seen any evidence to show that there was a legitimate reason to do this.

Powers: Now, as you mentioned, charges have been filed against a number of people involved in fake elector schemes around the nation. That includes here in Wisconsin. Can you explain what's happened there so far?

Beck: Yeah. So, there was first a civil lawsuit that the Democratic electors for Biden filed against the Republican electors for Trump that ended in a settlement. And then just recently, Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul, he filed felony forgery charges against none of the people that signed the electric paperwork themselves, but some aides to Trump. One was the former Dane County judge that I mentioned earlier. And another was a Wisconsin native who was a Trump attorney at the time. And a third was a Trump aide. And, basically, the charges outline their role in being architects of the plan, essentially, and carrying it out. So far, Kaul has just focused on the origin of the plan and not the people that participated in it at the local level.

Woods: And so, what happened to these fake electors? Like do we know where they are now?

Beck: Yeah. So, the majority of them, they were and still are members of the Republican Party and have various roles within the party. Some are chairpeople of, you know, a Congressional district’s party. One of them has worked for Ron Johnson. One of them is on the Wisconsin Elections Commission. Another was the chairman of the state Republican Party. He's no longer the chairman, but these were people that were very used to participating in party events and party politics and things like that. And it seems like, you know, I don't know that I've tracked every single one of them, but they still seem to be pretty involved in in the state Republican Party and Republican politics.

We continue our timeline into 2021, starting with the January 6th insurrection.

It was a cool and cloudy morning on January 6, 2021 when, in the last weeks of his presidency, Donald Trump convened a rally in Washington, D.C. to protest the certification of the election. By all accounts, he had lost, but he hadn't given up. He was still trying to convince lawmakers, including his Vice President Mike Pence, to somehow overturn the election.

The rally was like many Trump had held before, a group of die-hard followers and far-right extremists gathered together, angry over the election and convinced that it had been fraudulent. Trump riled up the crowd even further and encouraged them to walk down to the Capitol, where Congress was meeting to certify the election.

“So let's walk down Pennsylvania Avenue. I want to thank you all. God bless you, and God bless America. Thank you all for being here. This is incredible. Thank you very much,” Trump said.

Less than one hour after his speech, the first rioters breached the Capitol.

What had been a relatively routine hearing erupted into chaos.

Lawmakers were forced to flee the building as more than 2,000 insurrectionists overtook the capital, chanting things like,“Whose house?”

“Our house. Whose house? Our house,” rioters shouted.

But these rioters weren't looking for a sleep-in. They wanted to disrupt the certification of an election that all outside observers had declared free and fair. They were attempting to overthrow the United States’ duly elected government by force. They were looking for revenge for what they believed was a stolen election.

Rioters erected a noose and gallows outside the Capitol and charged into the building searching for political leaders.

Hours after the attack began, Trump released a video praising the rioters, repeating the lie that the election was stolen, and asking them to leave.

“I know your pain. I know you're hurt. We had an election that was stolen from us. It was a landslide election and everyone knows it, especially the other side. But you have to go home now. We have to have peace,” Trump said.

But the attack continued. It took six hours for Capitol Police to secure the building. After the smoke had cleared later that evening, Congress reconvened to certify the election, and the wreckage was still visible in the background.

Five people died during and immediately after the attack. In the following months, four officers who had responded to the attack died by suicide. More than a thousand people have been charged in connection with the insurrection, including Donald Trump.

Immediately after the insurrection, lawmakers across the political spectrum decried this attack on American democracy.

But that would change.

Partisan lines were drawn, and some Republican lawmakers, who had initially denounced the insurrection quickly backtracked to fit the party line. For some, attempting to overthrow the government went from being an act of terrorism to an act of patriotism.

The election may have been certified by Congress, but for some Republicans, the battle still wasn't over. It was just beginning. First, there was the movement to decertify the election. Journalist Molly Beck explains.

“The idea is that lawmakers would come in and declare the outcome of Wisconsin's election to be a result of fraud, and therefore needed to be pulled back, essentially. Like the 10 electoral vote should be pulled back from Joe Biden's total. There was no, you know, no evidence put forward that showed that this was possible. There was no evidence put forward that showed that there was a basis to do this, especially, you know, at one point, years later,” Beck says.

Wisconsin was considered the epicenter of this movement and even had the backing of the 2022 gubernatorial candidate, Republican Tim Michaels.

Then there were the investigations.

In light of these allegations of election fraud, states throughout the nation launched investigations into their elections. In Wisconsin, there were four.

Beck explains: “The Assembly Republicans first, you know, started looking at things through their elections committee. Then Assembly speaker Robin Voss hired former Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman to look into the election further. Then there was a Legislative Audit Bureau review of the election that was called for by Republicans too. There was a study that was conducted by a conservative law firm, known as the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty. And when you look at all of those together, like, you know, there's a lot of scrutiny of this election in Wisconsin and there was no evidence that was put forward by any of those probes that showed that there was widespread fraud or some reason to believe that the election result was incorrectly called in Wisconsin.”

The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty was among the groups investigating the 2020 election. Will Flanders is the research director at the Institute, and he explains that although they found no evidence of widespread voter fraud in the election, they still recommended changing how Wisconsin elections are run.

“I think what we tried to do in our report was differentiate between illegal votes and illegal voters. There were aspects of things that were done in response to the pandemic that, particularly on our legal side, we made the case might not be consistent with state law,” says Flanders.

Those “illegal votes” he's referring to are, in fact, votes that were legally cast through ballot drop boxes. WILL's investigation helped cast doubt on the 2020 election results, and the group went a step further by filing a lawsuit challenging the use of ballot drop boxes. In 2022, in a 4-3 decision along ideological lines, the Wisconsin Supreme Court banned the use of drop boxes in Wisconsin elections. The now liberal leaning state Supreme Court is reconsidering that ruling.

Journalist Ari Berman wrote about this in Minority Report, his book about Republican efforts to control American politics. He says the drop box issue was one of many ways Wisconsin Republicans have attempted to redesign elections in light of 2020.

“What Republicans have tried to do is change voting laws in all sorts of ways that Wisconsin Supreme Court, when it had a conservative majority, struck down things like drop boxes. There's also been a big effort to try to change the structure of the Wisconsin Election Commission. It's already been changed before by Republicans. They already gutted the previous group that oversaw state elections, the Government Accountability Board, because they didn't like the fact that it had investigated Scott Walker for campaign finance violations. Now they've been trying to reconstitute that board to make it more beholden to the Republican Legislature. They've also tried to fire the head of the state Election Board,” Berman says.

So far, most of these attempts have failed.

But Republicans were successful in getting two constitutional amendments passed in the 2024 spring election that have changed how elections can be administered. One amendment bans the use of outside funds for election administration and the other restricts who can work on local elections.

Each amendment was crafted in response to outside funding that came into the state during the 2020 election, specifically from Mark Zuckerberg. The Facebook founder sent money to communities throughout Wisconsin, but much of the funds ended up in the state’s largest cities, Milwaukee and Madison.

Barry Burden, director of the Election Research Center, says these amendments lack clarity and could impact our ability to properly run elections in Wisconsin.

“Funding, I think, is a concern for election officials who are worried that their state government, their county government, the municipal government may not provide them with the money they need to keep the machines they run up to date, to have the right technology, to pay poll workers, to keep their websites running – all the things that have to happen that are part of the expense of elections. Those private grants were really helpful in covering some of those expenses. So, those are just not going to be available this time around. The vagueness of this may be overly broad and might prevent people who are helpful to running elections from not being able to do that. I'll give you some examples. During the pandemic, election officials around the state often relied on other city or municipal workers to help run elections. So, I know that in Madison, for example, the engineering department was geared up and they helped build some of the new plexiglass dividers that would separate voters from the election officials. There were workers who had worked in parking ramps, who then ended up serving as poll workers on Election Day. Not clear if they would be allowed to do those kinds of things. It might have a lot of consequences, and I think probably some aspects of this are going to end up in a lawsuit somewhere to try to clarify exactly who is allowed to be involved in the running of elections and who is not,” Burden says.

Despite finding no evidence of widespread voter fraud in any of the investigations into Wisconsin’s 2020 election, the mere concerns that something might have been wrong have been used to justify changing our election laws. Despite all the levers of democracy at work, journalist Ari Berman says the state was incredibly close to overturning the election.

“The effort to overturn the election came closer in Wisconsin than in the other state because the Wisconsin Supreme Court, only by a 4-3 decision, decided not to overturn the election results. So, remember the Trump campaign filed litigation to throw out the votes only in Dane County and Milwaukee County, the two most Democratic counties in the state. And, if not for the swing Justice Brian Hagedorn siding with the progressive justices, there would have been enough votes to overturn the results in Milwaukee and Madison. There's just been so many things they've tried to do – the Republicans have tried to do – to try to gain more advantage, not just in terms of how people vote, but how votes are counted and how elections are run in Wisconsin,” Berman says.

And even after all of this – the failed attempts to overturn the election, the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, the deaths and the investigations that turned up no evidence of a stolen election – former President Trump continues to lie about the 2020 election, and some voters believe him.

A recent Marquette Law School poll found that nearly 60% of Republican voters in Wisconsin aren't confident in the accuracy of the 2020 presidential election.

Although he initially condemned the January 6th attack on the U.S. capital, Trump has switched, calling the rioters “patriots” and “warriors.”

“But those J6 warriors – they were warriors. But they were really, more than anything else, they're victims of what happened. All they were doing is protesting a rigged election, that's what they were doing,” Trump says.

And his election denial has bled into his 2024 campaign. Trump has already cast doubts on the fairness of the upcoming election and has said he's unlikely to accept the results unless, of course, he wins.

Joe Biden and Donald Trump are headed for a rematch this November. On the next Swing State of the Union, we'll explore the way presidential and Senate candidates are making their case to Wisconsinites.

“It isn't always a, all right? I'm just going to do the lesser of two evils. I think they are ready to stand in their power and have high expectations for candidates to actually earn their votes.”

Here we go again, next time on Swing State of the Union.

"Swing State of the Union" is produced by WUWM, Milwaukee’s NPR — a part of the NPR Network. Please subscribe to the "Swing State of the Union" podcast wherever you like to listen.

Sam is a WUWM production assistant for Lake Effect.
Joy is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.