Meagan Wolfe finds herself back where she started as elections chief: In the middle of a firestorm

Wisconsin Elections Commission Administrator Meagan Wolfe, poses outside of the Wisconsin State Capitol Building, on Aug. 31, 2020. (Ruthie Hauge/Capital Times via AP)
Wisconsin Elections Commission Administrator Meagan Wolfe, poses outside of the Wisconsin State Capitol Building, on Aug. 31, 2020. (Ruthie Hauge/Capital Times via AP)
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MADISON – Five years ago, Meagan Wolfe took over a new but already embattled role: leader of Wisconsin's elections commission. She was chosen as a steady hand to take over the agency after Republicans who control the state Legislature pushed out its first chief, who had become a symbol of intense partisan controversy.

Now, Wolfe finds herself in the same spot: facing the loss of her nonpartisan job to partisan politics.

"Sometimes when I think about what’s happened since 2020, and all that happened after the elections ... it’s kind of like blaming the umpire when your kicker misses the field goal," Rock County Clerk Lisa Tollefson told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Wolfe oversees the Wisconsin Elections Commission, which provides guidance to nearly 2,000 clerks in Wisconsin. That guidance is decided by six appointed commissioners, three from each major political party. Her job is to implement their decisions as rules governing how elections are administered.

Wolfe became administrator in 2018 at another inflection point in the agency's history, after Republican state senators fired the commission's previous administrator over a connection to a controversial investigation of former GOP Gov. Scott Walker and other Republicans by the Government Accountability Board, the agency that preceded the elections commission and the state ethics commission.

Now, at the end of her second term, Wolfe is at the center of another partisan firestorm surrounding the agency as commissioners have split on how to accomplish their goal of keeping her in her job amid a push from GOP lawmakers to oust her over discontent with the outcome of the 2020 election and practices the commission recommended to help voters navigate the coronavirus pandemic, some of which have since been deemed illegal by Wisconsin judges.

More: Meagan Wolfe defends tenure as elections chief to lawmakers ahead of commission vote on her future

'Hard-nosed' political maneuvering

Democratic election commissioners and Republican lawmakers each deployed unexpected legal maneuvers last week in their fight over Wolfe's future, neither of which are certain to succeed in court, where this saga is all but certain to land.

First, Democratic commissioners abstained from voting on a motion to reappoint Wolfe to her job in an effort to protect her from Republican senators who had signaled they would fire her if the reappointment was forwarded to them. With just three of six commissioners not voting, the motion to reappoint Wolfe failed without a majority.

Democrats argued there was no need for a vote because of a recent state Supreme Court ruling that sided with Frederick Prehn, a former Natural Resources Board chairman who decided to stay in his position nearly two years after his term expired.

The ruling's majority opinion said that the expiration of a term does not create a vacancy, meaning that holdovers in any position appointed by the governor can remain until a confirmation hearing is held by the state Senate. With commissioners failing to forward an appointment to the Senate, Democrats argued, Wolfe could remain in her job indefinitely.

But a day later, Senate Republicans moved forward anyway. Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu claimed Tuesday's 3-0 commission vote that resulted in a failed motion to reappoint Wolfe was actually enough votes to reappoint Wolfe, even though state law says such votes require a majority of commissioners, or four votes.

Wisconsin Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, talks with other senators prior to the start of the Senate session in Madison.
Wisconsin Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, talks with other senators prior to the start of the Senate session in Madison.

As a result, all Republican state senators voted to pass a resolution take up Wolfe's reappointment. It's unclear whether Wolfe will appear.

"It is remarkable how hard-nosed tactics have become in Wisconsin politics," said Barry Burden, director of the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Burden said, under state law, "It seems to me that the commission took no action on Wolfe as administrator."

"We have also been reminded recently that common sense understandings can be different from how courts see things," he said. "A reasonable person on the street would have said that a member of the Natural Resources Board would have to step down when their term expired, especially if the governor had already nominated a replacement."

Dustin Brown, a senior staff attorney for the State Democracy Research Initiative at UW-Madison, said in an email that, under the Supreme Court ruling and state law governing the commission, "Meagan Wolfe should be able to remain in her position as a holdover unless and until at least four commissioners decide otherwise (or she chooses to leave)."

When asked Thursday if he agreed with LeMahieu's interpretation of Tuesday's commission vote as a reappointment of Wolfe, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos didn't say.

"I am not an attorney. I trust that Devin, who I think is doing an excellent job as majority leader, has done that research," Vos said.

"I think it's important to forward a name to the Senate. They should not allow some shenanigans from the Democrats to prevent the will of the people through their elected leadership in the Legislature to be able to have a vote. So I wish they would forward the nomination and let the Senate take an action."

Vos dismissed the idea that Wolfe was irreplaceable.

"I think that there is more than ample people who could do a great job and I think to focus on saying that only one person could do that job isn't being honest with the public," he said. "They should follow the law. Go through the process. And at the end of the day, if for some reason, Meagan Wolfe isn't confirmed, somebody else will step up. We'll still have secure elections."

Rick Esenberg, president and chief counsel of the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, which has sued the elections commission over its guidance during the pandemic, said he believes the WEC situation differs slightly from the Prehn scenario but didn't rule out the possibility that the ruling could be applicable.

Regardless of the outcome, Esenberg was critical of what he described as "excessive political maneuvering" by the Democratic members of the commission.

Ann Jacobs, a Democratic member and former chairwoman of the elections commission, said the Senate was engaging in a "nonsense attempt to avoid the applicable statutes" and the outcome of the Supreme Court case they sought by intervening to defend Prehn's right to stay on the DNR board beyond the expiration of his term.

"With no appointment, there’s no appointee before the senate," she tweeted Thursday.

Jacobs later told the Journal Sentinel that "there wasn’t anything that the commissioners were going to do that was not going to be attacked if it resulted in Meagan Wolfe retaining her position as administrator."

"And it was important that we uphold the law and make clear that we did not have the authority to simply appoint someone when there wasn’t a vacancy," she said.

Republican commission chairman Don Millis said the week's events confirm he and the two other GOP commissioners were right to push for an up or down vote on Wolfe's reappointment.

"We should act like agencies normally act. We have a term expiring. We should appoint someone to the next term. That's the way government works," Millis said.

2020 is at issue

In 2020, the commission mailed absentee ballot applications to all voters, advised local officials on how to make ballot drop boxes secure, guidance that became the subject of a successful Republican legal challenge, and set new policies for voting in nursing homes that were later determined to be illegal by a judge.

Sen. Cory Tomczyk, R-Mosinee, told his Senate GOP colleagues in a May letter that “the behavior of the Wisconsin Elections Commission under the leadership of Meagan Wolfe has failed to instill confidence.”

“All of us have heard from Wisconsinites that have their doubts about the election procedures in our state, he wrote. ”Anything that creates doubt about election integrity needs to be responded to and corrected, to ease the minds of our constituents.”

He concluded by arguing the state Senate should ”begin to take its oversight duties seriously and vote no” … ”Any other action will only encourage lawlessness among administrative agencies who continue to push the bounds of their authority at the expense of the public,” he said.

Milwaukee Clerk Claire Woodall-Vogg said the effort to target Wolfe "rather than targeting the commissioners who made the decisions that certain voters aren’t agreeing with ... is terrifying.”

Tollefson, the Rock County clerk, said the turmoil surrounding leadership of the state's agency that is tasked with helping her office administer elections is intensifying an already high-pressure job in an already tumultuous time for election officials.

"We need somebody of strength that knows elections, that the clerks can depend on going into 2024 — that’s what we need," Tollefson told the Journal Sentinel. "The turnover in county clerks and municipal clerks is probably higher than it's ever been, so we need someone with strength to guide us."

When asked whether Wolfe was that person, Tollefson pointed to the turbulent moments in 2020 for election clerks.

"She led us through 2020," Tollefson said. "You have no idea the work we put in to make those elections happen, and she was that person that we could count on — boom, you'd get your information, you move on — she helped coordinate so many things. And I don’t see 2024 being any less crazy."

Alison Dirr of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel contributed to this report.

Molly Beck and Jessie Opoien can be reached at and

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Meagan Wolfe's journey in Wisconsin's elections fights full-circle