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Wisconsin Republican leader opposes GOP bill to disband bipartisan elections commission

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MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A Wisconsin legislative leader said Wednesday that he opposes a bill from fellow Republicans that seeks to give the GOP-controlled Legislature the ultimate power to oversee elections, taking it away from an independent bipartisan commission.

Republican state Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu told The Associated Press in an interview that he “wouldn’t imagine” that the bill introduced this week will come up for a vote. The proposal would put the secretary of state in charge of elections, rather than the Wisconsin Elections Commission, but the Legislature would have the final say over any decisions.

LeMahieu, despite being a critic of how the elections commission works, said he didn’t want to turn over its responsibilities to the secretary of state.

“I think that would just make that position way too partisan, frankly, which would be unfortunate,” he said.

Introduction of the bill comes amid ongoing attempts from some Republicans to oust the head of the commission before the 2024 presidential election. Wisconsin is one of a handful of battleground states. Four of the past six presidential elections in the state have been decided by fewer than 23,000 votes.

Even without LeMahieu’s opposition, the proposal giving the Legislature ultimate control over elections would not become law. Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has previously opposed transferring election administration to the secretary of state. And on Tuesday, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers told WISN-TV that he would veto the measure should it happen to pass.

The secretary of state in Wisconsin has not had control over elections since 1974. That power has been entrusted with a variety of independent agencies over the past 50 years, most recently the Wisconsin Elections Commission, which the Republican-controlled Legislature created in 2015. The commission consists of three commissioners appointed by Democrats and three appointed by Republicans.

Because of that even split, it frequently deadlocks on the most contentious and partisan issues that come before it.

The commission and its nonpartisan administrator, Meagan Wolfe, have been under increasing criticism from some Republicans since the 2020 election, when Donald Trump narrowly lost the state to President Joe Biden. The Senate voted to reject Wolfe’s confirmation for a second term, but it later admitted as part of a lawsuit filed to keep her in office that the vote was symbolic.

Wolfe and the commission have been the subject of conspiracy theories and the target of threats from election skeptics who falsely claim there was a plan to rig the 2020 vote in Wisconsin. Numerous reviews have found that the state’s 2020 election was fair and that the results were accurate.

Biden defeated Trump in 2020 by nearly 21,000 votes in Wisconsin, an outcome that has withstood two partial recounts, a nonpartisan audit, a conservative law firm’s review, and multiple state and federal lawsuits.

Under the new bill, the elections commission would be dissolved with powers transferred to the secretary of state’s office with oversight from the Legislature five months before the 2024 election. That would put Democratic Secretary of State Sarah Godlewski in charge of elections, but she couldn’t take any action without the Legislature’s approval.

Wisconsin is one of 12 states where elections are not run by the secretary of state’s office. In Wisconsin, the Legislature has gradually reduced the office’s powers, budget and staff to the point where it has few duties, and there have been Republican-backed pushes to eliminate or weaken it even further.

But now Republicans are looking to empower it, while giving the Legislature final say over election decisions.

The bill was introduced by Republican state Sen. Dan Knodl, who chairs the Senate’s elections committee, and 10 Assembly Republicans.

“Even though WEC is the result of Republican legislation, I can honestly say that it has failed in its duties,” Knodl said in a statement. “When a government entity fails at doing its job I believe the public should have a remedy for change. Currently, the public has no such remedy.”

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