RACINE COUNTY – Racine County Sheriff Christopher Schmaling has asked the district attorneys in the home counties of five members of the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC) to prosecute the members for felony misconduct in office.
Schmaling also renewed his call to Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul to open a statewide investigation into votes cast by residents confined to care centers in the 2020 general election.
The sheriff’s actions came after Racine County District Attorney Patricia Hanson wrote him a letter last Thursday (Feb. 10) stating that she lacked jurisdiction to issue charges against the WEC members because none of them reside in Racine County.
However, Hanson wrote that she believed the five elections commissioners should be prosecuted because they suspended a requirement that local election clerks send Special Voting Deputies to assisted care facilities before mailing absentee ballots to facility residents.
The Racine County Sheriff’s Office announced last Friday that it had reached out to the district attorneys where the commissioners reside and will be forwarding requests for criminal prosecution.
The WEC has six members – three appointed by the Republicans and three appointed by the Democrats.
Two Democratic appointees cited by Schmaling – Ann Jacobs and Mark Thomsen – live in Milwaukee County while the third Democratic appointee, Julie Clancy, lives in Sheboygan County. The Republican appointees cited by Schamling are Dean Knudson of St. Croix County and Marge Bostelman of Green Lake County.
A sixth WEC member, Republican appointee Bob Spindell, was not cited for prosecution by the Racine County Sheriff.
Schmaling and Racine County DA Hanson are Republicans.
Ridgewood Care Center Probe
Schmaling’s call for the WEC member prosecutions came after a lengthy investigation into how voting in the November 2020 general election was handled for residents of the county-operated Ridgewood Care Center in Mount Pleasant.
The investigation was launched after the Sheriff’s Office received complaints from family members of Ridgewood residents.
A Sheriff’s Office investigator found that Ridgewood staff members assisted residents in casting absentee ballots after the WEC suspended the state elections law requirement for Special Voting Deputies to enter care centers to assist residents with voting. The Special Voting Deputies are trained election officials who are to be present at assisted care facilities to guide residents through the process of requesting and completing ballots.
The Sheriff’s Office, and later Hanson, argued that the WEC commissioners didn’t have the authority to suspend the voting protocols regarding the Special Voting Deputies and therefore could be prosecuted for misconduct in office.
As a result of the elections commissioners’ actions, the number of absentee ballots returned from Ridgewood Care Center climbed from an average of 10 in previous elections to 42 in the November 2020 election, Hanson wrote in her Feb. 10 letter. New requests for absentee ballots jumped for an average between zero and three requests to 38 requests in November 2020. “These numbers are too significant to be ignored,” Hanson wrote.
Hanson also stated she declined to prosecute Ridgewood Care Center staff for alleged violations of state election law. “It would be unfair of me to expect that these health care professionals would better understand the election laws in Wisconsin than the Wisconsin Elections Commission.”
WEC Actions Questioned
The WEC voted unanimously in March 2020 to suspend the Special Voting Deputies requirement at nursing homes after the emergency orders were issued because of the growing COVID-19 pandemic.
In later commission votes to suspend the requirement, however, commissioner Spindell broke with the other commissioners. He was the only WEC member that Schmaling didn’t recommend be prosecuted.
After Schmaling released the findings of the 10-month investigation last October, Republican leaders in the Wisconsin Legislature called for the resignation of the WEC’s nonpartisan administrator. Later in the year, Republicans sponsored a resolution to “forcefully urge” the resignation of the WEC administrator and five of the six WEC commissioners.
The WEC, meanwhile, re-instated the use of Special Voting Deputies in the spring of 2021. According to news reports, the Special Voting Deputies would be used in the April 5 Spring Election.
Attorney General Rejects Investigation
Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul, a Democrat, has repeatedly declined to participate in a statewide investigation into the issues that Schmaling raised about the November 2020 election.
A Kaul spokesperson told the WisPolitics news website this week that an investigation isn’t warranted. “Criminal investigators in DOJ’s (Department of Justice) Division of Criminal Investigation investigate violent crime and drug trafficking, among other offenses, and diverting them away from that important work protecting public safety based on speculation and an investigation that didn’t result in criminal charges against Racine County residents would be a poor use of DOJ resources,” the spokesperson said.
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