Questions linger a year after GOP group cast proxy Electoral College votes for Trump

Jan. 20—CHIPPEWA FALLS — Two western Wisconsin Republicans are among 10 state residents who signed an election document in December 2020, falsely stating that Donald Trump had won Wisconsin, and that the state's 10 electoral votes should go to Trump, not Joe Biden.

Bill Feehan of La Crosse, who serves as the 3rd Congressional District GOP chairman, signed the document, as did Pam Travis, the secretary of both the Clark County Republican Party and the Wisconsin Federation of Republican Women.

Travis responded to an email, saying she would prefer not to be quoted. Feehan declined to comment. Both Travis and Feehan pointed instead to a statement from Republican Party chairman Paul Farrow, which says the Republicans who signed the documents were advised to do so by attorneys and the actions "were done in accordance with precedent."

"That Democrats are now trying to fabricate a story from a simple procedure is nothing more than a desperate attempt to divert attention from their record as they face the electorate in 2022," Farrow wrote. "It's a frivolous complaint that doesn't deserve the time of day."

The Wisconsin Republicans, along with Republicans from six other states that narrowly went to Biden, then sent those false documents to Washington to be certified that Trump won their respective state.

Complaints have been filed with the bipartisan Wisconsin Elections Commission and the Milwaukee County District Attorney's Office. Wisconsin's Attorney General Josh Kaul, a Democrat, said in an email Friday he believes the federal government is best suited to investigate the 10 Republican electors who submitted similar paperwork seeking to certify Trump in late 2020.

"I believe it's critical that the federal government fully investigates and prosecutes any unlawful actions in furtherance of any seditious conspiracy," Kaul said.

UW-Stout political science professor Rich Postlewaite was surprised that the GOP not only met to "certify" a victory for Trump that didn't happen, but that the party sent the fake documents to Washington to be certified.

"I've never heard of that before," Postlewaite said. "I've never heard of a state who sends in a slate of electors who lose the popular vote in that state. I find it very unusual that they would send them in with any type of hope they would be certified. It's a continuation of pushing the envelope of what the rules are for selecting the president."

The state's Democratic slate of electors convened in the state Capitol on Dec. 14, 2020, to deliver the state's electoral votes to Biden. The meeting occurred an hour after the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that Biden had won the election and a month after Wisconsin county clerks canvassed the presidential election results.

More than a year later, multiple agencies have yet to rule on complaints alleging the Republicans committed fraud.

The U.S. Constitution assigns the process for selecting electors to state law. Under Wisconsin statute, the slate of electors chosen by the candidate who wins the popular vote are seated and ultimately deliver those votes to Congress.

In the event of a genuine dispute regarding electors, or who actually won the popular vote, the Electoral Count Act allows for one member of the U.S. Senate and one with the U.S. House to call for additional debate, said David Schultz, a professor of political science at Hamline University. U.S. Code also allows Congress to intervene if there is a serious dispute over electors.

Schultz said it's likely Wisconsin statutes do not specifically contemplate a group of individuals falsely claiming to be electors, but he added the matter likely constitutes a fraudulent act.

"It's probably some type of fraud, probably some type of criminal forgery," said Schultz, who also teaches election law at the University of Minnesota Schools of Law.

Jeffrey Mandell, president of the liberal law firm Law Forward, which filed the complaints, said the precedent noted by Republicans — in which Hawaii electors from both parties convened in public regarding a genuine dispute over the 1960 presidential election — is a far cry from what happened in the state in late 2020.

"That is radically different from these 10 fraudulent electors skulking in the shadows and submitting false paperwork to create the ground on which the Jan. 6 insurrection was built," Mandell said.

Liberal watchdog group American Oversight last March obtained official-looking certificates submitted by Republicans claiming to be electors in seven states: Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. New Mexico and Pennsylvania Republicans added a caveat saying it was done in case they were later recognized as duly elected, qualified electors.

"It seems farfetched to think that each of these sets of alternative electors had genuine fact-based grievances, even though the grievances were different in every state," said Barry Burden, a political science professor and director of the Elections Research Center at UW-Madison. "It looks more like a national orchestration to try to challenge the election's results."

"I think there's a direct line between the suspicions that have been raised about the election results and the violent insurrection that took place at the U.S. Capitol on (Jan. 6, 2021)," Burden added.

Whose jurisdiction?

The Associated Press reported Friday that Michigan's attorney general has asked federal prosecutors to open a criminal investigation into 16 Republicans who submitted false certificates stating they were the state's presidential electors despite Joe Biden's victory in 2020.

"Under state law, I think clearly you have forgery of a public record, which is a 14-year offense, and election law forgery, which is a five-year offense," Dana Nessel, Michigan's Democratic attorney general, told MSNBC's Rachel Maddow. But the Justice Department, she said, is best suited to probe and potentially prosecute.

Politico reported earlier this month the U.S. House committee investigating the insurrection attempt at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2020, also is investigating documents submitted by Republican electors in several states.

In addition, the Democratic-led House Administration Committee last week issued a staff report exploring updates to the Electoral Count Act, which took effect in 1887. In a sign that reforms could receive bipartisan support, Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, have expressed interest in strengthening the act, NPR reported Sunday.

"Everyone agrees that the Electoral Count Act is unclear, not internally consistent, there are a whole range of interpretations about what it even says and it's never been tested in 150 years," Burden said. "So it's waiting there sort of like a time bomb to create potentially a constitutional crisis."

Former chair of the state Republican Party Andrew Hitt signed the paperwork in Wisconsin. At the time, Hitt, an attorney with Michael Best and Friedrich, said the decision was based on then-ongoing legal battles being pursued by Trump's campaign seeking to overturn the election's results in several states including Wisconsin.

"The Trump campaign thought that it was very important," Robert Spindell, a Republican who sits on the bipartisan elections commission who also signed the documents, said Sunday. "I don't know how many (documents) we signed, we probably signed a lot of them, and it was basically ... it was trying to do what I guess the attorneys thought was best in order to protect the interest of Trump should some of these lawsuits go in his favor."

A recount and court decisions have affirmed that Biden defeated Trump in Wisconsin by almost 21,000 votes. Spindell said he could not comment on the nearly one-year-old complaint filed with the commission, which has not announced any action on the matter.

"I still have to think they were trying to do something to create a dispute over which delegation from Wisconsin was legitimate," said Schultz, the Hamline professor.

Hitt did not respond to a request for comment.

Along with Feehan and Travis, the others to sign the document include 8th Congressional District GOP chair Kelly Ruh; 1st Congressional District GOP vice chair Carol Brunner; Dane County Republican Party chair Scott Grabins; 5th Congressional District GOP chair Kathy Kiernan; 6th Congressional District GOP chair Darryl Carlson; and Mary Buestrin vice chair of the Midwest region for the Republican National Convention.

The Service Employees International Union Wisconsin Council, represented by Law Forward, last February filed a complaint with the Wisconsin Elections Commission accusing the Republicans who signed the filing of committing fraud.

Another complaint against Hitt has been filed with the Office of Lawyer Regulation, the agency that handles complaints against lawyers.

Law Forward has also filed a complaint against the GOP "fraudulent electors" with Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm seeking an investigation into the matter to determine if criminal charges are appropriate.

"In short, upon information and belief, the fraudulent electors took every possible action to pantomime the procedures prescribed in (U.S. Code) and thereby to create the illusion that they were acting under color of law as Wisconsin's true presidential electors, even as they cast votes contrary to the will of the voters and the designated votes required by law to reflect the election results," Mandell wrote in the Feb. 15 letter to Chisholm.

Law Forward alleges the GOP electors committed multiple felonies for forgery, falsely assuming to act as a public officer and misconduct in a public office. Mandell suggested the false electors could be charged with both federal and state crimes.

Mandell told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel last week Chisholm is still reviewing the complaint.

The State Journal and Associated Press contributed to this report.