Last week, ASD Elections Integrity Fellow David Levine spoke with longtime Wisconsin election administrator and Madison City Attorney Michael Haas. They talked about conducting Wisconsin elections, including the state’s August 9th primary, in the state’s hyper-polarized atmosphere.

Listen to the full interview in the above video. Below are the key takeaways.

Localities can often take steps to protect election workers, such as by creating task forces that respond to election worker threats and adopting meaningful penalties for threatening and harassing election workers.

Tensions towards Wisconsin election administrators have run especially high since the 2020 presidential election. After a statewide canvas, partial recount, numerous court decisions, and a review of the election by the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau all found that the 2020 election in Wisconsin was legitimately conducted, Wisconsin legislators tapped former Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman to lead another investigation of the state’s 2020 presidential election. After more than a year, Gableman was dismissed last week after his taxpayer-funded, wide-ranging inquiry similarly failed to find any evidence of widespread fraud.

Despite the evidence, these investigations seeded conspiracies and false information about the 2020 election, likely eroding public trust in Wisconsin elections and contributing to the reported death threats and harassment of local election officials. “After the 2016 election, our state and local election officials have been subjected to an unfortunate, constant amount of harassment [and] threats—over the phone, online, and in-person,” Haas explained. Madison City Clerk Maribeth Witzel-Behl, for example, has received multiple death threats.   

To ensure that such behavior directed towards election workers is taken seriously, particularly in the absence of federal or state action, localities should consider creating locally-based task forces that focus on responding to threats against their election workers and their equipment. Such task forces can review the security of election officials and materials in their localities, evaluate potential threats, create processes for investigating credible threats, and recommend solutions for addressing them.

Last month, the Dane County Election Security Task Force issued a report that found that the “critical infrastructure” of elections is inadequate in the county and that clerks in Madison and surrounding municipalities “do not feel safe.” The report called for increasing security for clerks along with improving security at facilities used to store voting equipment. Shortly after the report, Dane County Clerk Scott McDonnell vowed that his next budget would include a request “for a facility that would house the equipment, ballots and personnel that’s secure, that’s not in a city-county building,” which has too many access points.  Just over a week later, Haas helped spearhead the Madison City Council’s unanimous approval of an ordinance creating a new penalty for disorderly conduct targeting election officials.

“It is only a city ordinance, but hopefully we can fend off that behavior when it is lower level before it becomes a criminal offence,” Haas explained. “It’s an [important] step for the city of Madison, both to signal that the harassment of election officials is not going to be tolerated and to provide support to the election officials to know that the city has their back.”

This problem is not limited to Madison. Earlier this year, the Brennan Center for Justice found that nearly two-thirds of election officials nationwide believe false information is making their jobs more dangerous. The polling also found that the biggest reason retiring clerks do not want to continue in their jobs was because too many political leaders are attacking a system that they know is free and fair. “Across the country election officials are leaving the field,” Haas said. “This is the time we need them most—the experienced election officials who have been through the fires and survived and have the wisdom about how to handle it.”

Proposed Solutions

  • Localities should create locally-based threat task forces focused on responding to threats directed at those working on the front lines of elections to signal that the targeting of election workers is taken seriously.
  • Where possible, local governments should seek to strengthen their laws protecting election officials from harm. This can help counter malicious actors threatening violence against election officials.

Robust, evidence-based voter education campaigns are critical to building more trust in elections, particularly when other public officials are unjustifiably casting doubt on legitimate electoral results.

President Joe Biden defeated former president Donald Trump in Wisconsin by more than 20,000 votes in 2020. That year, voters in Wisconsin cast 1.9 million ballots by mail—many of them via drop boxes. For voters concerned about privacy, contracting the coronavirus, or delays with the U.S. postal service, ballot drop boxes were a useful, proven alternative.

Yet this year, just a month before the August 9th primary elections, the Wisconsin Supreme Court released an opinion that upheld the banning of most drop boxes. In its decision, the majority not only held that drop boxes did not comply with the Wisconsin Constitution, but that their mere usage cast greater doubt on election outcomes, despite the lack of evidence supporting such a contention. In short order, the Wisconsin Supreme Court reversed state election law, unnecessarily restricted access to the ballot box, and gave oxygen to those who still falsely believed in the Big Lie.

“It’s very disheartening that we as a nation are so concerned about foreign interference, when now the major threat to elections is coming not only from domestic actors but elected officials and candidates,” Haas said. “We need to have the public recognize local election officials as the expert on what the facts are.”

To counter false election narratives spread by bad faith actors, Haas emphasized the importance of messaging and building long-term relationships with stakeholders to ensure the success and reach of such campaigns. Haas praised a number of organizations for their voter education campaigns, including BadgersVote, a coalition comprised of University of Wisconsin students and Madison County election officials that meets weekly to discuss how to “package voter education in a way that voters will understand.” This relationship was especially important following the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling on drop boxes, which occurred shortly before the primary. “We had an avenue for getting the information out,” Haas shared. “That court decision had some holes and was unclear… We had to quickly communicate how we the city was going to accommodate individuals.” Due in part to these campaigns, there were few issues and greater turnout than any previous partisan primary in 40 years.

Proposed Solutions:

  • Election officials and their partners need to engage the general public on the mechanics of elections, such as how to register to vote, what a ballot looks like, and the different voting options. This will give people a better understanding of an often complex, decentralized process, as well as multiple ways for how to successfully cast a ballot.
  • Election officials need to build long-term relationships with key stakeholders to establish avenues for communicating accurate information on elections.
  • Election officials and their partners need to develop specialized messaging on election information for different audiences to ensure all people understand and are receiving the proper information.
  • Ideally, changes to election processes would occur well in advance of voting, but sometimes last-minute interventions (such as court decisions) change processes at the 11th As a result, election officials should publish a notice outlining how they will try to respond to last-minute changes that affect the election process for voters. This could include publicizing changes on the election office’s website; notifying the public through various social media channels; sending a mass mailing to eligible voters; and/or posting information about the changes at each of the jurisdictions’ different voting locations.

The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.