Republican governor candidate Tim Michels calls for mass firings at state elections commission, repeal of election guidance to clerks

MADISON - Wisconsin's election system would be dismantled under dramatic plans that Republican candidates for governor are crafting to appeal to the party's base, much of which believes former President Donald Trump's false claims of fraud in the last presidential election.

GOP primary newcomer Tim Michels is the latest candidate to propose sweeping changes to how the state oversees elections and provides ballot access to voters.

Tim Michels speaks to a large crowd during the launching of his gubernatorial campaign Monday, April 25, 2022, in Brownsville, Wis.
Tim Michels speaks to a large crowd during the launching of his gubernatorial campaign Monday, April 25, 2022, in Brownsville, Wis.

More: Candidate for governor Tim Michels says 'maybe' the 2020 election was stolen even though Biden's win has been repeatedly confirmed

In a plan released Thursday, Michels called for all senior staff and appointed commissioners at the Wisconsin Elections Commission to be fired and the election guidance followed by around 1,900 local and county clerks to be repealed.

Under Michels' plan, Wisconsin clerks administering the February 2023 primary election would have no guidance.

“In my business, we want to take a look at a problem and see what’s going on,” Michels said in a statement. “My plan is a fresh start, and allows us to bring in or bring back people who are ready to get to work to fix our elections, not make the problem worse."

But his top primary opponent said the plan didn't go far enough. Former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch has called for the state elections commission to be abolished altogether and its duties be moved to lawmakers or a partisan office with two positions and an annual budget of less than $250,000.

"Anyone who has been paying attention knows that the Wisconsin Elections Commission cannot be reformed. It must be abolished," she said in a tweet.

Democratic chairwoman of the Wisconsin Elections Commission Ann Jacobs said Michels' plan demonstrates he does not understand how elections are run in Wisconsin.

"This is craziness - it demonstrates a total lack of understanding how elections work. There would be no guidance for elections at all? And no staff? Just an empty office? Who will administer registrations? the Wisvote database?" Jacobs said in a tweet.

"And if there's a special election right after this mass firing? While there are no staff? Who will administer the election? Especially if there's no guidance. Are you going to tell clerks to wing it? Do whatever they want?"

Dissolving the state elections commission is a plan also sought by Kevin Nicholson and Tim Ramthun, who are running against Kleefisch and Michels in the GOP primary.

More: Here are the 4 Republicans who are seeking to unseat Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers in the 2022 election

It is also the top recommendation made by former Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman, who has been leading a taxpayer-funded review of the 2020 election for nearly a year and has not found any evidence to support Trump's claims of appreciable fraud.

The aggressive stance on elections comes as the Republicans running to defeat Democratic incumbent Gov. Tony Evers vie to curry favor with Trump and his supporters in the party. Evers has used the GOP efforts to overhaul elections in the state to present himself to voters as a goalie fending off threats to the state's democratic process.

A spokesman for Michels refused to answer how clerks would administer the February, 21, 2023 primary election, which would take place about six weeks after Michels' inauguration if he is elected, if no guidance is in place.

Rep. Lisa Subeck, a Democrat from Madison who sits on the Assembly Committee on Elections and Campaigns, called the proposal authoritarian.

"It sounds like this is somebody who wants to get elected governor and essentially take over our election system, which is an incredibly dangerous idea that anyone should think that one politician should have control in that manner over our elections," Subeck said.

"These are folks who want to continue down the path of The Big Lie who are still claiming that the election was not won by Joe Biden, who are still claiming that there are, what has been unsubstantiated, claims of voter fraud," she said. "This was an election that was canvassed. It was recounted. It was the subject of a number of court cases. And all throughout all of that, the results have stuck."

If elected, Michels said, he would convene a special legislative session the day he is sworn in to pass legislation that would remove the six commissioners and top election staff within one month. The workers would have to reapply for their jobs.

Any staff who were involved in drafting guidance that conflicted with state law would not be eligible for rehire, according to the plan. At issue is guidance the commission gave in 2020 during the early months of the pandemic to help nursing home residents vote.

At the time, the commissioners agreed to recommend bypassing a state law requiring poll workers try to visit the facilities before sending absentee ballots. They said they made the decision to ensure the residents would get ballots in time to be counted.

The plan would also change state law to require voters who claimed to be indefinitely confined in 2020 to show photo identification to reapply for the status.

Wisconsin law allows voters to automatically receive absentee ballots for every election if they identify themselves as indefinitely confined. Those who are indefinitely confined do not have to submit a copy of a photo ID to receive their ballots, as other voters must.

Thousands of disabled and elderly people who cannot easily get out of their homes have long used the law. Voters decide for themselves whether they qualify as indefinitely confined and do not need to submit medical information to election clerks.

In 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic surged, the number of indefinitely confined voters exploded. That November, 215,000 voters claimed to be indefinitely confined, compared with 67,000 in the 2016 presidential election.

More: Rebecca Kleefisch used 'indefinitely confined' voting method she now wants abolished, says it was a mistake

Republicans have since criticized the law, saying it lets people sidestep Wisconsin's voter ID requirement too easily.

Michels' plan would also give the governor the power to remove election officials found in contempt of court over election-related issues, ban private funding for election administration, and bar the use of ballot drop boxes.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu did not immediately have a reaction to the proposal. Vos and LeMahieu have previously said they want to keep the state elections commission in place rather than abolish it as other Republican candidates have proposed.

Lawmakers are already pushing a ban on private election funding through a constitutional amendment process that must pass two consecutive legislative sessions before going to voters for approval. Evers vetoed a previous bill designed to accomplish the same goal.

A recent court ruling also banned the use of drop boxes in the spring elections, but the matter could be revisited by the state Supreme Court.

Michels also said voter lists should be purged of inactive voters twice a year, instead of the commission's current practice of deactivating deceased voters daily and deactivating voters who have moved four times per year.

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Contact Molly Beck at molly.beck@jrn.com. Follow her on Twitter at @MollyBeck.

This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Governor hopeful Tim Michels wants elections commission members fired