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RACINE COUNTY – Officials with the Racine County Sheriff’s Office sounded an alarm around alleged voting issues, specifically how one long-term care facility collected ballots for the fall 2020 presidential election.

During a press conference held Thursday morning, Racine County Sheriff Christopher Schmaling released findings of a 10-month-long investigation into the role staff at the Ridgewood Care Center played in collecting ballots.

The investigation also looked into the Wisconsin Election Commission directive to not allow Special Voting Deputies in nursing homes and care facilities to oversee the elections.

No arrests have been made or charges filed with the Racine County District Attorney’s Office. But Schmaling now wants the State Attorney General’s Office to investigate the matter.

“At the end of the day, we all want to have fair elections,” Schmaling said. “We all want to make certain that our vote counts, and when people break the law, we all want them held accountable.”

One of those election integrity issues involved a resident at Ridgewood Care Center with “diminished mental capacity” voting in the fall presidential election. The woman’s daughter filed an affidavit with the Wisconsin Election Commission alleging that staff at the facility “took advantage” of her mother’s “diminished mental capacity and filled out an absentee ballot(s) in her name. The woman voted absentee for the November 3 election but had died in October 2020, before the November 3 election.

What the investigation uncovered

The Wisconsin Election Commission violated state law when it told election officials not to dispatch Special Voting Deputies. But no charges have been filed with the Racine County District Attorney’s Office, said Sgt. Michael J. Luell, the lead investigator on the case.

The six-member bipartisan Wisconsin Elections Commission voted five to one in March, June and Sept. to not dispatch special voting deputies to nursing homes and care facilities to administer voting for the spring election and following elections held in 2020.

Outlined in a press release dated March 12, 2020, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services said municipalities should not use the Special Voting Deputy process to “serve residents in care facilities and instead shall transmit absentee ballots to those voters by mail.”

All of the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC) documents point to the COVID-19 pandemic as the reason for their decision. Instead of the Special Voting Deputies, the WEC authorized staff at the facilities to help residents fill out their ballots.

WEC officials directed nursing home staff to assist residents in filling out their ballots or certificate envelopes, helping them complete voter registration forms and absentee requests, and signing the special certification envelope and witness ballots, according to the documents.

“So the crime is completed throughout the state,” Luell said. “It’s already done by their letters, by their directives. They have committed crime after crime after crime in all 72 counties throughout the state, The fact that it leads to victimization is a horrible result. That’s bad, but the crimes are already done.”

Investigators believe that the WEC and Ridgewood Care Facility employees broke at least four state laws. The violations include offering assistance to residents about voting when they were not supposed to, pre-filling information on the absentee ballots and certifying that the person was indefinitely confined after the ballot had been filled out.

Where things stand

No one has been arrested or charged with any crime, but investigators say they haven’t completed the investigation and a referral could be forthcoming.

Calling the WEC policy an “election integrity” issue, Schmaling said he believes more people in Wisconsin have been impacted by the WEC policy and called on the State Attorney General to launch an investigation into the Wisconsin Elections Commission.

“(We) need to restore some level of integrity and trust back into our election system,” he said.

Luell added that he is not advocating for votes or elections to be overturned.

“We don’t even urge charges,” he said. “We work collaboratively with prosecutors and try to come to the best results, but ultimately charging is in the hands of whatever prosecutor your county or state. What is going to happen to the WEC is up to the legislature.”

State Attorney’s Office responds

Gillian Drummond, director of communications for the Wisconsin Department of Justice, Office of the Attorney General, issued the following statement:

“We’re confident that local law enforcement and District Attorneys in Wisconsin take voter fraud seriously and that, if there are credible allegations of fraud, they will be thoroughly investigated by local law enforcement. In the event that local law enforcement or District Attorneys need assistance in any case involving credible evidence of fraud, the Wisconsin Department of Justice is available to assist. Here, DOJ was previously in contact with Sheriff Schmaling and DOJ advised that certain interviews be conducted that had not been at that time. Significantly, no charges have been filed in this case by the Racine County DA’s office. DOJ is also currently not aware of similar allegations anywhere else in Wisconsin.”

Racine County District Attorney Tricia Hanson did not respond to questions regarding the investigation.

However, Luell did say the investigation has not been completed.

“But I have to be very careful here,” Luell said. “People have a right to vote, and people have varying degrees of understanding. I get that you don’t need a Ph.D. to vote, alright. But these loved ones believe that their loved ones are at such cognitive difficulties that they would not have had the ability to request a ballot and exercise their right to vote.”

Key takeaways

  • The Racine County Sheriff’s Office found eight instances of election violations at the Ridgewood Care Facility in Mount Pleasant.
  • No arrests have been made and no one has been taken into custody
  • No referrals have been made to the Racine County District Attorney’s Office. But officials with the Racine County Sheriff’s Department said they are “in the process.”

Next step

Primary documents

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