Republican leaders in states across the country have spent the first half of 2021 pushing to relitigate the 2020 election, amping up false conspiracies that the presidency was stolen and in some cases pushing for “audits” to prove the case. But what’s happening now in Wisconsin is unique — a secretive effort run by one of the state’s most powerful Republicans to undermine faith in elections.
The investigation is unlike anything else happening in the country, even as it has a similar aim: giving semiofficial cover to false and misleading claims of 2020 election fraud as a way to justify severe new voting restrictions.
On May 26, Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he was going to hire three former police officers to look into bogus claims of widespread voter fraud and other tips they receive about the election. They would be overseen by an attorney, they would have subpoena power, and they would deliver a report to Vos, likely this fall.
Republicans on the Assembly’s Organization Committee, which Vos chairs, voted two days later to give him, personally, the authority to “approve all financial costs and contractual arrangements for hiring legal counsel and investigators” for the venture.
A month later, there is no information on what Vos’s three investigators are doing, and it’s not even clear who one of them is. Their meetings, if they are having them, are not public.
Vos used the same language that other Republicans have used to back attempts to relitigate the 2020 election: Their investigations are needed because so many people don’t believe that the last election was “legitimate,” while they are themselves spreading the idea that it wasn’t. Never mind that audits conducted by Wisconsin’s six-member bipartisan elections commission — which includes a commissioner appointed by Vos himself — have found just 27 cases of potential fraud among 3.3 million ballots cast in the state in November. “Is there a whole lot of smoke or is there actual fire? We just don’t know yet,” Vos told the Journal Sentinel.
One thing Vos has been clear about is what he hopes to gain from his investigation. He acknowledges the election can’t be overturned (while arguing, bizarrely, “My job is to be frustrated with the result”) and so he wants these investigators to produce a report that will help him pass restrictive voting laws, which are currently getting vetoed by the state’s Democratic governor. Vos has been explicit about this, telling the Journal Sentinel, “I want to build public support for these election reforms.”
None of this has been enough for former president Donald Trump, who said Friday that Vos was “working hard to cover up election fraud” and called for Vos to back an “audit” like the sideshow in Arizona or lose his seat; a resolution calling on him to resign at the state party’s annual convention Saturday failed. Vos said that Trump was “just misinformed,” noting that Republicans voted in February to authorize the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau to look into how the election was run. Several Republicans on Saturday started referring to it as a “forensic” audit, mimicking Trump and his supporters’ language.
BuzzFeed News reached out to Vos’s office multiple times asking for the identities of all of the investigators and other basic facts, like when the investigation actually began, whether there is any budget for the taxpayer-funded investigation, and where the investigators are doing this work. His office ignored the questions and declined multiple interview requests.
Democrats on the Assembly’s Elections and Organizing committees, the bodies that set all of this up, told BuzzFeed News that even they do not know who all of the investigators are or what they are doing and that there is no requirement for Vos to ever say so. Vos’s authority over the investigation comes from what’s called a “paper ballot,” literally a piece of paper asking legislators for an “aye” or “no” on something Vos wants, in lieu of public comment or input from anyone. The authorization for the investigation is just two sentences and includes no details or limits.
Democratic Rep. Dianne Hesselbein, whose office shared a copy of the ballot with BuzzFeed News, called the formation of the investigation “another wild abuse of power by Speaker Vos.” Hesselbein has previously spoken out about the Vos leadership team’s frequent use of paper ballots to avoid public comment, noting they are “often” used to authorize taxpayer dollars to hire private attorneys for political purposes. (Republican lawmakers in Wisconsin have spent $8.5 million on attorneys in the last three years, according to a nonpartisan report.)
“The Speaker is desperately trying to challenge the legitimacy of an election proven over and over again to be fair,” Hesselbein said in a statement to BuzzFeed News. “Not only is this damaging to our democracy, it is a clear violation of public trust.”
And at least one of Vos’s investigators has experience using election conspiracies to try to restrict voting rights. That’s former Milwaukee police detective Michael Sandvick, who wrote a discredited report in 2008 claiming widespread voter fraud in the city in the 2004 presidential election and recommending that the state pass a new voter ID law and end same-day registration at the polls, the Journal Sentinel reported. Sandvick paid to copy and bind the report himself and hand-delivered copies to the heads of the state parties, according to the paper. He was criticized by police leadership and told not to go to the polls on Election Day, so he took the day off and went to challenge ballots on his own time, the paper reported; he retired not long after that, and Republicans passed a voter ID law three years later when they took the governor’s mansion.
Sandvick later went to work for the state Republican Party and for True The Vote, a right-wing group that filed and then abandoned multiple lawsuits challenging Donald Trump’s 2020 loss and tried to kick 364,000 voters off the rolls in Georgia.
Vos acknowledged to the AP that Sandvick had “Republican leanings.”
Vos didn’t initially identify the other members of the team who are working with Sandvick, but the AP obtained a copy of a contract he signed with Steve Page, a former officer from Eau Claire. The contracts show that Page and Sandvick will each be paid $3,600 a month through August. Vos still has not revealed the third member of the team, describing them on a conservative radio show only as a retired Brown County sheriff's deputy who was involved in the investigation of former Green Bay mayor Jim Schmitt, a Republican, for campaign finance violations.
As for the attorney, Vos announced at the Wisconsin GOP’s convention on Saturday that he is hiring former state Supreme Court justice Michael Gableman to oversee the investigation, telling attendees, “We wanted to make sure that you were the first people to know.”
Gableman spoke at a rally for Trump supporters on Nov. 7 after most news networks had called the election for President Joe Biden, where he told the crowd he wasn’t confident “that this was an honest election,” according to WTMJ-TV. On Saturday, he told Wisconsin Republicans of the election, “This one is where we draw the line.”
Because he is using taxpayer funds, Vos will eventually have to report how much money he spends on the investigation, but the details of what it was spent on may never be public, Democratic Rep. Mark Spreitzer told BuzzFeed News.
Spreitzer thinks that’s why Vos is bringing on Gableman to lead the investigation: so he can claim attorney-client privilege over the whole exercise and avoid having to share details. It’s something Vos has done before. In late 2018, the Assembly speaker signed an $850,000 contract using public funds to retain a law firm to defend Republican-drawn redistricting maps and refused to make the contract public, despite open records law, citing attorney-client privilege. “That’s been one of the ways that they’ve tried to wall some of these things off from public scrutiny,” Spreitzer said.
But should the investigators try to issue subpoenas to compel witnesses to testify or produce documents, that couldn’t happen in secret, Spreitzer said. He shared a memo written by a staff attorney with the Wisconsin Legislative Council (a nonpartisan body that advises the legislature on state law) saying that by law, any witness subpoenaed would have to appear before the committee, which is subject to its own open meetings laws. “So I think if this goes beyond just sort of rifling through what’s already out there in the public sphere, I think we will have to know about it,” Spreitzer said.
What’s out there in the public sphere, of course, is a lot of misinformation and intentional lies about what happened last November. Contractors hired by Arizona’s Republican-led Senate to “audit” the vote in the state’s most populous county were spotted using UV lights to search for bamboo fibers because of a conspiracy theory that fake ballots had been shipped in from Asia.
Vos reportedly mocked the bamboo search, but he still approved a request from a delegation of Republican Assembly members to travel to Phoenix to check out the Arizona audit earlier this month (a trip that was paid for by the same dark money group founded by OAN reporters that is helping fund the audit itself). The group of four Republicans was led by state Rep. Janel Brandtjen, who chairs the Assembly’s Elections Committee and has said she’d like to see a similar process in Wisconsin. Like Vos’s investigators, the contractors in Arizona are working on a report, which they’re expected to release later this summer.
Spreitzer said he has constituents who have been writing to him “since November, raising their own doubts about the election.” He’s written them back.
“I feel an obligation to respond to that, to understand that they sincerely believe what they are saying,” he said, “but to, you know, to try to walk them through why perhaps they’ve been misled by folks who have a political agenda to mislead them.”