Will Election Denialism Plague Wisconsin Once Again? Officials Set Stage for 2024

Ahead of Donald Trump’s 2024 campaign stop in Waukesha, Wisconsin, the former president told local right-wing radio host Dan O’Donnell he’s had “great luck” in the battleground state. 

“We’ve had great luck there, and we’ve had some delayed luck … We won in Wisconsin, as you know, the first time. The second time we did much better. But I guess it was delayed,” Trump said during the April 1 interview. His claim is not true. 

Biden won Wisconsin in 2020 by roughly 20,000 votes. In 2016 Trump beat Hillary Clinton by about 22,000 votes. Experts say Wisconsin will likely be a close race again. “Wisconsin has been the tipping point state in two consecutive presidential elections,” Anthony Chergosky, a political science professor at University of Wisconsin La Crosse, told Democracy Docket. “I think we could get three in a row.”

Speaking to Democracy Docket this month, Wisconsin Election Commission Chair Ann Jacobs stressed that 2020 was an extraordinary year. The pandemic prompted officials to issue election guidance enabling people to vote safely, spurring a host of legal challenges, and the nation had not yet witnessed the extent to which Trump and his allies would try to overturn an election.

But recent events raise the specter of 2020, such as a failed bill that would have allowed election workers to count absentee ballots before Election Day, helping to avoid the so-called “ballot dump” that fueled false claims of voter fraud in 2020. “What that means in practice is we’re going to have the red mirage again,” Chergosky said, referring to the shift that occurs when absentee ballots are still being counted. “[When] it happened in 2020 it prompted a lot of conspiracy theories,” he said, “particularly when it comes to Milwaukee.”

“The poll workers are going to get the job done,” Jacobs said Friday. “I think we’ve made it clear that there will be a delay in reporting the absentee ballots that have not yet been [counted].” She noted that counties will reflect the totals on their websites as votes are counted.

Meanwhile, Trump continues to lie about winning the 2020 presidential race as he asks Wisconsinites for their vote in November. Next month, Trump and other Republicans will descend on Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s largest city, for the Republican National Convention.

Wisconsin courts are helping lay the groundwork for the 2024 race.

The state judiciary will play a role in determining where and how Wisconsinites cast their ballots this fall, as judges weigh a number of important cases like the drop-box prohibition before the Wisconsin Supreme Court. In that case, the majority-liberal bench is considering whether to overturn a July 2022 decision handed down by a conservative majority in Teigen v. Wisconsin Elections Commission that virtually banned the use of drop boxes in the state.

This month, the high court partially ruled against conservative plaintiffs in a case that challenged the use of mobile voting sites in Racine. The Wisconsin Supreme Court froze part of a lower court ruling which limited the number of early voting locations municipalities may designate for the state’s 2024 elections.”

While the court’s ideological makeup doesn’t guarantee a certain outcome, it can indicate how justices will interpret the law, and was critical in beating back lawsuits that could have upended the 2020 race. In Trump v. Biden, the high court rejected Trump’s attempt to overturn his loss in the state by invalidating votes in Dane and Milwaukee counties. The court’s ruling was a narrow 4-3 split, with a conservative justice joining liberals in their majority decision.

In the lower courts, a conservative-backed challenge to Wisconsin’s new absentee ballot envelope resulted in a trial court temporarily blocking the bipartisan Wisconsin Elections Commission from requiring clerks to use the new design. The Democratic National Committee asked to intervene in the case, arguing the lawsuit would unduly burden Wisconsin election officials by forcing them to retool their procedures while trying to administer primary and general elections. 

Jacobs said the case is ultimately about people’s ability to vote and whether or not there will be procedures in place that are going to allow them to do that. “That’s why national entities are intervening,” she said Friday.

Most recently, a Dane County judge issued a decision allowing Wisconsin voters with disabilities to request and receive accessible absentee ballots via email during the November election. The decision, though, will require election officials to facilitate the availability of those ballots. 

Through a partisan lens, a decision or policy that enables people to vote easily is often viewed as favorable to Democrats, said Howard Schweber, a retired political science professor and affiliate faculty member at the University of Wisconsin Law School. He explained this is partly why Republicans challenged certain COVID-related changes to election procedure.

It’s also why Schwebber believes Wisconsin won’t see a repeat of the legal wrangling that gripped Wisconsin’s state and federal courts in 2020. “I don’t see nearly as much room for litigation,” he said. “I think observers, journalists, certainly Democrats and liberals, tend to overlook the extent to which the ‘election-was-stolen’ trope came out of actions changing electoral rules with very short notice in places like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.”

Will election denialism plague Wisconsin once again?

This time around, Wisconsin Republicans appear more focused on mobilizing their base to utilize early and absentee voting, even as they struggle to stay on the same page, and Trump holds on to 2020 conspiracies. “For them, strategically, it makes all the sense in the world to try to encourage their base to vote early,” Chergosky said. 

The Republican National Convention in Milwaukee, which is set to take place July 15-18, could be an opportunity for Republicans to present a unified front. “But the party has not demonstrated an ability to send its base voters a consistent message on mail-in voting,” Chergosky said. The Wisconsin Republican Party hasn’t responded to questions from Democracy Docket.

In a May interview with the Journal-Sentinel, Trump wouldn’t fully commit to accepting the election result: “If everything’s honest, I’ll gladly accept the results… If it’s not, you have to fight for the right of the country,” he said. Wisconsin Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson also hedged, telling the Cap Times, “We have to see exactly what happens. If there are all kinds of abuses, we might have to start questioning those abuses, might have to investigate them…”

While Wisconsin may not see some of 2020’s most active election deniers in the mix, like Kenneth Chesebro, a Trump ally charged in June in a fake elector scheme, Common Cause’s Jay Heck says there’s still potential for disinformation.

“They’ll say and do anything just to undermine public confidence in the result,” the executive director told Democracy Docket. “That’s a tricky thing, because on one hand, you don’t want to amplify [what] they’re doing and saying about elections, because that confuses people. And on the other hand, you want to find out the source and go after it.”

Jacobs, a Democrat, noted that Wisconsin allows others to observe the election process, and encouraged people to take part in order to better understand how it works. “People should think about whether or not they want to go watch,” she said. “I think they’ll learn a lot. I think they’ll discover that a lot of what they’ve heard isn’t true.”