In a move that turned the tables on Democrats who had played political games with the appointment of controversial Wisconsin Elections Commission Administrator Meagan Wolfe, the Republican-controlled state Senate late Wednesday evening dropped a surprise resolution that sets up a confirmation vote sources say Wolfe can’t win.
Democrats stormed out of the Senate Chamber, refusing to vote on the resolution.
Following lengthy debate and passage of the state’s 2023-25 budget, the so-called quiet period of post-floor debate resolutions, Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg) brought a resolution considering Wolfe to be officially nominated to another term as administrator. That term, however, very well could be short-lived once Senate Republicans, who hold a supermajority, bring her up for the required nomination vote.
The move floored Democrats, who were completely caught off guard by the rare procedural maneuver. State Senator Tim Carpenter (D-Milwaukee) called the resolution a “knife in the back,” and a “violation of the relationships of the majority and minority.”
Republicans felt much the same on Tuesday, when the three Democrats on the six-member Wisconsin Elections Commission abstained from voting on Wolfe’s re-appointment. They believed doing so would effectively keep Wolfe in her position and safe from the “political wolves” of a Senate confirmation vote. The highly partisan move by WEC Democrats relies on a recent Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling that upheld a long-standing decision that allowed appointed members to remain at their posts until they are removed from their positions.
Senate sources say Democrats’ legal reasoning stands on shaky ground, that the court case is an “apples to oranges” comparison.
“What we have a fundamental agreement on is that Meagan Wolfe is the best person to run our agency and that’s why I am abstaining because I will take my shots with the court rather than at the Senate,” Commissioner Mark Thomsen said at Tuesday’s WEC meeting.
Thomsen has played such political games before. As chairman of the Elections commission five years ago, he lead what was termed a constitutional crisis in commission action that effectively rejected a Senate vote against confirming another controversial WEC administrator.
The three Republican members of the evenly divided commission voted to approve Wolfe’s re-appointment, ultimately so the Senate could decide her fate. Commission Chairman Don Millis, appointed by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester), has said Wolfe has lost the faith and confidence of many Republicans in the Legislature. While Millis apparently has no problem with the administrator, lawmakers from across the state have heard an earful of complaints about Wolfe’s handling of Wisconsin’s 2020 presidential election in particular.
“Sometimes people become a lightning rod and fairness has very little to do with it,” Millis said during Tuesday’s meeting. “At this point it behooves the commission to follow regular order to give the Senate a chance to decide it one way or another.”
Democrats on the commission celebrated their temporary victory through impasse.
“Delighted to report that Wisc. Elections Administrator Meagan Wolfe will retain her position as administrator as we go into the 2024 election cycle. Wisconsin will be well-served by her professionalism and expertise!” Commissioner Ann Jacobs tweeted after the meeting wrapped up Tuesday.
Delighted to report that Wisc. Elections Administrator Meagan Wolfe will retain her position as administrator as we go into the 2024 election cycle. Wisconsin will be well-served by her professionalism and expertise! https://t.co/QiHx7yuYla
— Ann Jacobs (@AnnJacobsMKE) June 27, 2023
But the Republican-led Senate delivered a resolution that stunned Democrats, who complained they needed more time to read the two-page, 34-line document.
The resolution notes the statutory — constitutional right — to consider and act upon all nominations for appointments through the confirmation process. That’s the cornerstone of advise and consent, and that “specifically” includes the administrator of the Wisconsin Elections Commission.
Also noted is the vote count (3-0, with 3 commissioners abstaining) to re-nominate Wolfe to a four-year term.
Jacobs was apoplectic, firing off a manifesto of tweets blasting the Senate move.
“NOBODY can be appointed as administrator of the WEC without a MAJORITY vote of the commission! It’s the law! 15.61(1)(b)1.: The Elections comm shall be under the direction & supervision of an administrator, who shall be appointed by a MAJORITY of the commission,” she wrote, in part.
She added, “There are 6 members of the commission. A majority is 4! Only 3 members voted to re-appoint admin. Wolfe. For those who are math-confused, 3 is less than 4!! And there were NOT 4 votes!”
There are 6 members of the commission. A majority is 4!
Only 3 members voted to re-appoint admin. Wolfe.
For those who are math-confused, 3 is less than 4!!
And there were NOT 4 votes!
— Ann Jacobs (@AnnJacobsMKE) June 29, 2023
Senate Republicans and their attorneys disagree.
The Wisconsin Elections Commission, the resolution states, has a “history of not submitting the nomination of its administrator to the Senate.” It failed to do so in 2016, keeping in place Michael Haas, who was a player in Wisconsin’s unconstitutional John Doe investigations into conservatives lead by WEC’s predecessor agency, the Government Accountability Board.
The Senate eventually in 2018 deemed Haas nominated, as it is doing with Wolfe, and then voted to reject the nomination. Thomsen and WEC Democrats, joined by one Republican member, then re-appointed Haas as interim administrator, creating a constitutional crisis in what was seen as the executive branch usurping the authority of the legislative branch. Haas eventually stepped down, ending the standoff.
Because WEC has not, or can not, submit Wolfe’s nomination to the Senate, the resolution invokes Senate Rule 22, Subsection 3, requiring such lingering nominations to be considered submitted on the fifth day after nomination. That’s five days after the Elections Commission’s 3-0 vote to re-appoint Wolfe, according to the resolution.
“Now, therefore be it resolved by the Senate that the Wisconsin State Senate considered Meagan Wolfe to have been nominated by the Wisconsin Elections Commission as Administrator to serve a term of office expiring July 1, 2027; and be it further resolved that, pursuant to [the rule] the President shall refer Meagan Wolfe’s nomination as Administrator of the Wisconsin Elections Commission to the appropriate standing committee for its recommendation,” the resolution concludes.
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M.D. Kittle is the National Political Editor for The Star News Network.