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Republicans, elections experts say Wisconsin probe is flawed



FILE - Election workers, right, verify ballots as recount observers, left, watch during a Milwaukee hand recount of presidential votes at the Wisconsin Center, Friday, Nov. 20, 2020, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Former Republican officeholders and elections experts said Wednesday that the GOP-ordered investigation into the 2020 presidential election in Wisconsin lacks credibility, transparency and raises security risks and legal concerns.

And a Republican Wisconsin lawmaker who heads the state Senate’s election committee separately defended the integrity of the state’s election process after a two-hour informational hearing attended by other Republicans who have pushed for investigations.

“I’m sorry, but there is not a reason to spread misinformation about this past election when we have all the evidence that shows otherwise,” state Sen. Kathy Bernier said after after she led a tutorial at the state Capitol for legislators and their their staffs about how the state’s elections function. That included a demonstration of voting equipment.

Former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman and Kentucky’s former secretary of state, Trey Grayson, said the ongoing investigation in Wisconsin, like one in Arizona, are part of disinformation campaigns and threats to democracy.

“It’s clear these are bad faith efforts, not fact-finding missions but rather political stunts to keep the lies of the 2020 election alive,” said Whitman, who served in former President George W. Bush’s Cabinet. Grayson, who is also a Republican, said now was the time to build trust in elections, not spread conspiracy theories.

“I worry about the future of election security and the future of the Republican Party,” Grayson said. Both he and Whitman spoke during a conference call organized by the nonpartisan group States United Democracy Center, which advocates for free, fair and secure elections.

President Joe Biden defeated former President Donald Trump by more than 20,000 votes in Wisconsin. The results were upheld following recounts in Milwaukee and Dane counties and through numerous state and federal lawsuits filed by Trump and his supporters.

Still, Republicans have questioned numerous aspects of the 2020 election but have produced no evidence of widespread fraud while calling for a broader “forensic audit.” To date, only two people out of 3.3 million votes cast in Wisconsin have been charged with election fraud.

Wisconsin Republicans ordered a review by the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau, which was to release its findings this fall. But under pressure from conservatives for a broader review, Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos hired former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman to lead a separate investigation.

Gableman, a conservative, has a budget of $676,000 to hire investigators and do a data analysis on election results. What form that data analysis will take, and whether county leaders would turn over sensitive information without a court order, remains to be seen.

Gableman in November told a crowd of Trump supporters in Milwaukee that, “Our elected leaders — your elected leaders — have allowed unelected bureaucrats at the Wisconsin Elections Commission to steal our vote.” Gableman also traveled to Arizona to talk with officials about the investigation there, and he attended a symposium in South Dakota organized by MyPillow founder Mike Lindell that included presentations by advocates of election conspiracy theories.

Elections officials in Milwaukee and Brown counties last week rejected subpoenas issued by Assembly Elections Committee Chair Rep. Janel Brandtjen that sought access to ballots and voting machines. The subpoenas were not signed by Vos or the Assembly’s chief clerk, as required by law, leading the county election clerks to reject them.

Brown County Attorney David Hemery also voiced concerns about what steps would be taken to ensure the security of all the information requested. Republican efforts questioning the outcome of the 2020 presidential race have led to voting system breaches that election security experts say pose a heightened risk to future elections.

States United Democracy Center released a memo Wednesday comparing the Wisconsin probe with the widely discredited Arizona audit led by Cyber Ninjas, a small cybersecurity firm based in Florida picked to lead the review.

“We should not allow unqualified and hyper-partisan actors to make a mockery of official election procedures and sow doubt about our democracy,” the bipartisan group co-chaired and founded by Whitman wrote.

Neither Vos nor Brandtjen have experience in administering official audits or ballot counts, which raises more security concerns, the report stated.

Vos and Brandtjen did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment.

Whitman said the goal is to sow distrust in elections so that legislatures are empowered to change voting laws and make it possible to overturn results in 2022 and 2024 that they don’t like.

“This is a real threat to our democracy,” she said. “It is happening across the country. It’s not something that just popped up.”