Wisconsin Senate votes to remove state’s top elections official, setting off legal dispute

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

The Republican-controlled Wisconsin Senate voted Thursday to fire the state’s top elections administrator, Meagan Wolfe – a move that immediately triggered a legal battle over who will oversee voting in one of the nation’s most important presidential swing states as the 2024 election approaches.

The 22-11 vote to remove Wolfe follows years of criticism by supporters of Donald Trump, who have blamed Wisconsin’s voting policies during the coronavirus pandemic for the former president’s 21,000-vote loss in 2020.

Wolfe is likely to stay on as the administrator of the bipartisan Wisconsin Elections Commission despite Thursday’s vote, after Wolfe and many Democrats, including Attorney General Josh Kaul, said the actions of the Senate – where an April special election victory gave Republicans a supermajority – were not legitimate.

Wolfe told reporters after the vote that she will remain on the job and will not “bend to political pressure.”

“The Senate’s vote today to remove me is not a referendum on the job I do, but rather a reaction to not achieving the political outcome they desire,” she said.

But state Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu said the commission must appoint an interim administrator.

“The vote today represents the lack of faith the people of Wisconsin have in Meagan Wolfe to serve as administrator of the Wisconsin Elections Commission,” the Republican lawmaker said. “We need to rebuild the faith in Wisconsin’s elections.”

Shortly after the vote, Kaul said his office had filed a lawsuit in Dane County seeking an injunction that would make clear that Wolfe remains in place as elections administrator.

“The action the Senate has taken today has no legal effect,” the Democrat told reporters in Madison. He described the GOP-led vote as part of a “multi-pronged attack on the basics of our democracy.”

Wisconsin Democrats are citing a prior state Supreme Court ruling that allowed a Republican-appointed official to remain in his position after his term had expired because the Senate did not confirm Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ replacement.

Wolfe was appointed by the Wisconsin Elections Commission in 2018 and confirmed unanimously by the state Senate in May 2019. Her four-year term was set to end this summer. Three Republicans on the commission voted to nominate her for another four-year term, but the three Democratic members, anticipating that the Senate would block Wolfe’s confirmation, abstained. That left the position unfilled, allowing Wolfe to continue in her job.

However, despite the court precedent, the chairman of the state Senate’s election committee, Republican Dan Knodl, moved to consider Wolfe’s renomination last month, setting in motion the GOP-led vote to remove her.

“This is not a close question under Wisconsin law. While the Senate has purported to take a vote on the appointment of Meagan Wolfe, there is no appointment,” Kaul said. “We’ve got a Supreme Court ruling. We’ve got to follow it.”

Wolfe has faced criticism from Republicans for the election commission’s 2020 decision to advise clerks to send nursing home residents absentee ballots amid the coronavirus pandemic, sidestepping a state law that required poll workers to visit those nursing homes first.

She has also been the target of conspiracy theories driven by Republicans who parroted Trump’s falsehoods about widespread fraud in the 2020 election.

Evers slammed Thursday’s vote to remove Wolfe, saying state Republicans were “continuing to escalate efforts to sow distrust and disinformation about our elections.”

He said in a statement he was directing the Wisconsin Department of Justice to “provide immediate representation to defend Ms. Wolfe so she can remain in this important role.”

Broader uncertainty in Wisconsin

The drama over Wolfe’s future is playing out against the backdrop of broader uncertainty in Wisconsin over who will set the rules for the 2024 election. Liberals won a majority on the state Supreme Court earlier this year, but GOP legislative leaders have publicly floated the possibility of impeaching Justice Janet Protasiewicz – turning the 4-3 liberal majority into a 3-3 split – if she does not recuse herself from cases involving redistricting, after her campaign-trail criticism of the state’s Republican-drawn legislative maps as “rigged” and “unfair.”

Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos on Wednesday proposed utilizing an independent body to draw new district maps – which would need to be approved by the state legislature – and also said he plans to appoint a panel to review criteria for impeaching a state Supreme Court justice.

“What I’m doing is asking a panel of former members of the state Supreme Court to review and advise what the criteria are for impeachment and to be able to go to the next step of this process if we’re not able to determine an off path,” Vos told WISN-AM Wednesday morning.

The surprise moves were an attempt to put some distance between Vos and the potential backlash over his threats to impeach Protasiewicz if she refuses to recuse herself from two lawsuits challenging the state’s legislative maps.

Protasiewicz has shown no sign that she will recuse but has asked for briefs on the matter as the case moves through the system. Briefs are due September 18, according to the docket.

This story and headline have been updated with additional information.

For more CNN news and newsletters create an account at CNN.com