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RACINE COUNTY – The Racine County Sheriff’s Office referred election fraud charges Wednesday to the Racine County District Attorney’s Office against five members of the Wisconsin Elections Commission.

Commissioners Margaret Bostelmann, Julie Glancey, Ann Jacobs, Dean Knudson, and Mark Thomsen were all named, but they have not formally been charged. Referrals for charging have been submitted to the Racine County District Attorney’s Office for:

  • Misconduct in Public Office (Felony)
  • Election Fraud – Election Official Assisting with Violation (Felony)
  • Party to the Crime of Election Fraud – Receive Ballot Non-Election Official (Misdemeanor)
  • Party to the Crime of Election Fraud – Illegal Ballot Receipt (Misdemeanor)
  • Party to the Crime of Election Fraud – Solicit Assistance (Misdemeanor) 

The referral comes just days after officials with the Racine County Sheriff’s Office held a press conference about alleged voter irregularities. Together the commissioners issued a joint statement on Friday denying those claims.

“To put it simply, we did not break the law,” said Commission Chair Ann Jacobs, an attorney from Milwaukee. “In fact, without action from the Commission, many residents in Wisconsin care facilities could have and would have been disenfranchised and not able to vote in the 2020 elections.”

Read more: Racine County Sheriff alleges voting issues during 2020 presidential election

Allegations of election fraud made

During a press conference held Thursday morning, Racine County Sheriff Christopher Schmaling and Sgt. Michael J. Luell, the lead investigator on the case, released findings of a 10-month-long investigation into the role staff from the Ridgewood Care Center played in collecting absentee ballots.

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

One alleged election integrity issue 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 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 in early October for the November 3 election but had died just before the November 3 election.

“The Sheriff’s Office is again calling on Attorney General Josh Kaul to conduct a statewide investigation into the illegal directives issued by the Wisconsin Election Commission,” according to the press release by the Racine County Sheriff’s Office. “In the directives, the Wisconsin Election Commission ordered the voting clerks in every municipality in the state to ‘not use the Special Voting Deputy ‘process’ as required by Wis. Stat. § 6.875.”

Kaul responded via email with the following statement:

“This disgraceful publicity stunt shows an appalling lack of judgment. This is a transparently political effort and an abuse of authority.”

Read the statute.

WEC Commissioners respond to allegations

The joint statement released by the WEC Commissioners pointed out that the law directs election officials to “be sent to some facilities to allow for in-person voting for residents. Not every care facility utilizes the SVD process. For those that do, during the COVID-19 pandemic, only ‘essential workers’ were allowed into nursing homes as part of the required quarantine for residents.”

Additionally, the statutes call for SVDs to attempt two visits to a facility over a five-day notice. If the care facilities do not allow them access, absentee ballots are sent to those residents. They then complete the ballots just as other absentee ballot voters.

“We knew that for the protection of residents, only essential workers (which did not include SVDs) were being allowed into facilities across the state,” Commissioner Julie Glancey said. “As such, we knew it was essential to preserve the right to vote for those residents, so rather than require the absurdity of sending SVDs to knock on a locked door, we pivoted to the absentee voting process.”

The WEC Commissioners noted that they also found the Ridgewood Care Center case “horrifying.” They hoped that the Sheriff’s Office would investigate and prosecute any offenders. They stressed that a person’s right to vote can only be restricted by a judge that finds the person incompetent.

“The statutes are very clear on this,” Jacobs said.

The statement also highlighted that the rules around voter assistance are “different” than someone voting with an SVD, and an absentee voter can, in fact, receive some help in completing their ballot, which is outlined in the statutes.

While the WEC has embraced virtual SVDs as a possible solution to providing nursing home residents with voting assistance, not all facilities have the necessary equipment or training to allow for digital assistance. Additionally, it is unclear how a digital process would work with the rights of observers. The WEC is an agency that can’t make demands on private facilities to purchase technology. Nor does the WEC have control over the individual staff members who work in nursing homes.

Investigator frustrated with media coverage

Luell takes issue with the commission’s position, specifically when they admit to breaking the law during commission meetings, he said.

He calls their argument a “straw man argument,” meaning that he’s not arguing the same points they are. His focus is on how the WEC Commission authorized care facility staff to proctor the voting process.

“So they can stay in the realm of ‘we did nothing wrong, or we didn’t break the law.’ Well, that’s great. I mean, I was a prosecutor for 10 years. Do you think if someone just told me, I didn’t break the law, that was the end of the inquiry. I mean, it’s ridiculous with some members of the media and press. They won’t even compare our two positions,” he said.

Luell argued that the WEC has administrative powers, not legislative powers. The agency requested that Governor Tony Evers suspend the law. But Evers’ office told the WEC they didn’t have the power to do that.

“They decided to do it anyway,” Luell said.

He also pointed to how the WEC failed to solve the problem but discussed solutions including using the same protocols hospitals used, including using PPE, social distancing, technology and cell phones.

“Remember, they said that they were going to put out their training to staff via a webinar, meaning you have to watch it on a computer,” he said. “So why couldn’t they use that?” 

Next steps

During the press conference, Luell called on Racine County residents to file complaints of voter irregularities. Since then, he’s been inundated with calls and emails. But he hasn’t been able to go through them all.

“I want to make sure those allegations are in the same ballpark of what I’m dealing with and are credible,” Luell said.

It is not clear whether Racine County District Attorney Patricia Hanson plans to officially charge the Commissioners. Hanson did not respond to a request for a statement.

If you would like to file a complaint, you can call (262) 636-3853 or email Luell at voterintegrity@racinecounty.com.

Denise Lockwood has an extensive background in traditional and non-traditional media. She has written for Patch.com, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine and the Kenosha News.