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Wisconsin GOP lawmakers want the state legislature to take over federal elections

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In the swing state of Wisconsin, debate over the 2020 presidential election rages on. Investigations into the election continue there. And now GOP lawmakers want to strip the state's bipartisan elections agency of its power and give that power to the Republican-controlled state legislature. Wisconsin Public Radio's Laurel White reports.

LAUREL WHITE, BYLINE: The idea came from Wisconsin U.S. Senator Ron Johnson. The Republican cites part of the U.S. Constitution that says state legislatures can set the times, places and manner of federal elections. He says it's time for the Wisconsin legislature to, quote, "reassert its power."

RON JOHNSON: I think it's imperative that we restore confidence in our election system for everybody.

WHITE: Johnson says that confidence isn't possible while the Wisconsin Elections Commission is running things. Last month, a nonpartisan audit of the 2020 election found some guidance issued by the agency last year conflicted with state law. Because of the pandemic, many polling places had been shuttered ahead of the presidential primary, and the guidance let clerks set new locations on their own. But Johnson says the agency was out of line by giving clerks that leeway.

JOHNSON: The election commission issued these guidances that were contrary to state law. And so, no, I've completely lost confidence in the Wisconsin Election Commission.

WHITE: Other guidance told clerks to stop sending specialized workers into some nursing homes to help with voting, which is also required under state law. The homes were locked down because of the pandemic. A sheriff in southeastern Wisconsin says the nursing home guidance allowed eight residents at a local care facility to be inappropriately influenced by staff during voting. Sheriff Christopher Schmaling, who has publicly supported former President Donald Trump, has called on five members of the Wisconsin Elections Commission who voted for the policy to be charged with felonies.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHRISTOPHER SCHMALING: This is a law that was broken, and everybody who votes ought to feel the pain of that.

WHITE: The commissioners feared workers would be turned away and called for absentee ballots to be used instead. They said that preserved residents' right to vote. The local district attorney hasn't pursued any criminal charges following the allegations for members of the elections commission or nursing home staff. Meagan Wolfe is the commission's administrator. Since the election report and the nursing home allegations, she's faced calls from state GOP leaders to resign. She says she won't do it.

MEAGAN WOLFE: I do think that this is partisan politics at its worst. But at the same time, I have an obligation as the state's nonpartisan chief election official to rise above it.

WHITE: If Wolfe were to step down, the Republican-controlled legislature would likely get to name her replacement. While the top two GOP leaders in Wisconsin are critical of the elections commission, they seem cool to Johnson's idea for state lawmakers to take over federal elections. They recently met with the senator. But State Assembly Speaker Robin Vos says they didn't talk about Johnson's proposal.

ROBIN VOS: The idea of somehow that we're going to take over the elections and do all those things - I've never studied that. I don't know about it. But that was not our discussion.

WHITE: For his part, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers has called the proposal a vast overreach by Republicans. All this year, Evers has stymied GOP-backed election bills.

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TONY EVERS: As long as I am governor of this great state, anti-democracy efforts like this will never see the light of day.

WHITE: But Evers is up for reelection next year, and his top GOP challenger has joined the chorus of Republican criticism of the elections commission. If she's elected, and Republicans maintain control of the legislature, they would have a wide-open road to change elections in Wisconsin, including who controls them. For NPR News, I'm Laurel White in Madison.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE TEMPER TRAP'S "DRUM SONG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Laurel White