Connecting state and local government leaders
With the presidential election more than a year away, one former state senator is traveling across Wisconsin to prepare local election officials for skeptical voters by educating them on election processes and technologies.
After the divisiveness of 2020, he’s worried about what will happen to the country when the intensity ramps up again next year for the 2024 presidential election, but he also has concerns about electronic voting machines and questions about their vulnerability to cyber attacks.
On Monday night, Michels, clad in a short-sleeved, button-up shirt covered in American flags, was one of about two dozen invited attendees at an event hosted in a basement conference room at the Chippewa County Courthouse by former Republican state Sen. Kathy Bernier and Keep Our Republic—a nonprofit organization dedicated to restoring voters’ trust in the country’s election systems.
The event was the first of many Bernier and Keep Our Republic plan to hold across the state with the aim of countering conspiracies about the state’s election administration. In a political landscape where election misinformation is spread through the fire hose of social media and cable news, the idea behind the events is smaller—and slower.
Gather a group of community leaders—the people who most frequently get stopped by voters with election-related concerns on the street—into a room with local election officials and arm them with the facts. If it works, the next time a voter approaches them with questions about Dominion voting machines, Democratic “ballot harvesting” operations in Milwaukee or convoluted data that claims to show thousands of flipped votes in Clark County, the community leaders will be able to respond accurately.
“I think the best way to get to people is through their peers and to give them the facts,” Bernier told the Wisconsin Examiner. “Most people are the same, they put their pants on one leg at a time. I might get yelled at, but I don’t care. I’ve been yelled at by a lot of people, by some of the people here, actually. But I know the facts and I’m going to stand my ground.”
Now the interim chair of the Chippewa County Republican Party, Michels says he’s one of the people who haven’t always agreed with Bernier. They’ve known each other a long time—as small town politics tend to go. He was on the county board at the same time she was the county clerk. Plus his second cousin is her ex-husband.
From her seat as chair of the Senate elections committee and with her experience running elections as a county clerk, Bernier was one of the only elected Republicans in Wisconsin who regularly pushed back against 2020 election conspiracies. That stance didn’t win her many friends in her district and she retired at the end of the last legislative session.
Michels, who has no relation to or much fondness for former Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Michels, says it took guts for Bernier to invite him and other election skeptics to the event, where she spent three and a half hours walking attendees through the often dull minutia of election administration.
Under the government standard fluorescent lights, with pasta salad and bags of chips in the back, Bernier and the panel painstakingly explained Wisconsin’s election system.
On the panel were Chippewa County Clerk Jaclyn Sadler, Eau Claire County Clerk Sue McDonald, Eau Claire City Clerk Nicholas Koerner, Wisconsin Elections Commission Administrator Meagan Wolfe and Carolyn Weigold, a representative from Clear Ballot, the company that built Chippewa County’s voting machines.
Bernier also included several law enforcement officials, including the Chippewa Falls police chief as well as both the Chippewa County district attorney and sheriff.
The panel was able to show attendees the exact documents they use to keep an election’s paper trail, answer questions about security systems and explain what it means when officials say that voting machines are “air-gapped” (air-gapped computers aren’t able to connect to the internet as a security feature).
Most people are the same, they put their pants on one leg at a time. I might get yelled at, but I don't care. I've been yelled at by a lot of people, by some of the people here, actually. But I know the facts and I'm going to stand my ground.
– Kathy Bernier
The panel described the processes for verifying voter registrations and handling absentee ballots, explained that every ballot cast in Wisconsin on an electronic machine comes with a paper receipt to verify the county and, to the surprise of some attendees, said that every step of the voting and election certification process is open and viewable to the public.
Throughout the event, Bernier served as the elections professor, allowing her panelists to explain the intricacies but often stepping out from behind her podium when she got animated about her belief in the system and the “friends and neighbors”—even the ones in Democratic voting Dane and Milwaukee counties—that run it.
Part of her pitch to election skeptics is that it’s fair to ask questions about an election that took place under the extraordinary circumstances of a pandemic. She often signals she’s still a conservative with conservative grievances. She doesn’t think clerks and the WEC should have allowed the use of absentee ballot drop boxes. She says she would have made a different decision about how to facilitate voting in nursing homes. She regularly points to Democrats’ 2016 claims that Donald Trump worked with Russia to get elected.
But she also told attendees none of that means the 2020 election wasn’t run fairly or decided accurately.
“Because this happened administratively, because a clerk made a decision administratively that might not have been the right decision, because the Wisconsin Election Commission made decisions that the court didn’t agree with, does not mean you can overthrow the election,” she said. “It is an administrative decision that was wrong. But that doesn’t make the ballots, the voters’ ballots, illegal or fraudulent. They are not. You cannot take my vote because the clerk or the Wisconsin Election Commission made a mistake or a huge error. You can’t take my vote away, you can’t take other people’s votes away because of administrative malfeasance or whatever you want to call it.”
In attendance at the event were a staff member for U.S. Rep. Tom Tiffany—who was one of 147 Republican members of Congress who voted to decertify Arizona and Pennsylvania’s 2020 election results—local legislators Sen. Jesse James (R-Altoona) and Rep. Karen Hurd (R-Fall Creek), and former Assembly Speaker Mike Huebsch.
Huebsch, who sits on the Keep Our Republic board, regularly lobbed questions at Bernier from his seat in the back row because, he says, people need to have their questions answered if they’re going to come back into the fold.
“When you have the opportunity for fraud, then in the minds of some people, fraud is occurring,” Huebsch told the Examiner, noting people’s concerns about absentee ballot return accommodations that were made in 2020. “As soon as that happens, you undermine the entire bedrock of our democracy. When people say, ‘I’m not going to vote, because it’s not going to count,’ or ‘I know it’s going to be offset by fraud in some other area,’ when that occurs, when that is starting to be widespread, and I’m not suggesting half the voters, but even 10% of voters, you have a real problem.”
“I think Keep Our Republic and others need to answer the hard questions,” he continued. “It’s not going to be enough for our group or any other group to simply go up there and say, ‘Everything’s fine, don’t worry about it, everything’s good.’ That’s not going to assuage the concerns of those 10%. You’ve got to address those hard questions. And you’ve got to make sure you’ve got a good answer for them.”
Since 2020, WEC Administrator Meagan Wolfe has regularly said she believes the only way to counter election conspiracies is to give people the facts. She’s testified before legislative committees, appeared on TV and radio, given interviews across the state to try to do that. But on Monday night, she had driven nearly three hours from Madison to sit in a room with a couple dozen people to deliver that message in person.
Wolfe—in the face of the seemingly enormous task of trying to convince a portion of the electorate that the election wasn’t stolen, even as Republican members of the state Senate threaten to remove her from her post—says it has to be a both/and strategy of communicating widely while also taking a more personable approach.
“I think people like to hear their questions, sort of, you know, in their own words, and they like to have answers to their questions directly,” she told the Examiner. “So now, hopefully, the next time those folks are faced with information that may not be correct or vetted, that they’ll be armed with correct information to help spread that through their communities. It’s not getting our message out through some kind of mass media, but I think it’s a really important way to make sure that communities are armed with correct information about how elections work.”
Walking out of the courthouse, Michels said the event gave him a lot to think about, that he was encouraged to hear that every electronically counted ballot in Wisconsin has a corresponding paper receipt and that it’s good the tabulating machines aren’t connected to the internet.
But as Bernier wrapped up, he made one final comment.
“There’s a lot of talk about undocumented voters coming into this nation,” he said. “So hopefully, the powers to be are prepared for it.”
Bernier explained that undocumented immigrants in Wisconsin aren’t able to get driver’s licenses—making it difficult to comply with the state’s photo ID requirements for voting—and noted that undocumented immigrants don’t want to get caught and deported, so committing a felony that involves giving the government your name and address doesn’t make sense.
But Michels remained unconvinced, so she moved on, with that fear unassuaged.
Clarification: This story has been updated to say that Wisconsin requires voters to show a photo ID to vote, not to register.
Editor's Note: This story was updated Aug. 3 to correct when the presidential election will occur.