The GOP’s Election Subversion Puts the ‘Con’ in Wisconsin

Move over, Georgia and Arizona. Republican cheeseheads are coming on strong with a swirl of audits, intimidation, and authoritarian moves.
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A man smokes a cigarette while waiting in line to attend a rally held by U.S. President Donald Trump's on Jan. 14, 2020, at UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images)

The following content comes from our Breaking the Vote newsletter, a weekly roundup by VICE News' Deputy D.C. Bureau Chief Todd Zwillich. Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Friday.

We, the democracy lovers, spend a lot of time worrying about places like Arizona and Georgia. And with good reason! But talk to enough election professionals and you’ll see why Wisconsin is winning “most frightening place for election subversion” right now. 

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Ever since Joe Biden took Wisconsin by just under 21,000 votes in 2020, Republicans there have responded with an escalating swirl of audits, intimidation, and authoritarian moves. They’ve had two election audits already, with a third, partisan investigation that had GOP officials threatening non-complying Democrats with jail. Republicans are targeting the state’s bipartisan election commission for a takeover, and, again, threatening resisters with jail. 

This week, one Republican lawmaker was even caught—on tape!—urging his party to “cheat” in elections. 

VICE News reporter Cam Joseph just posted this story on how the whole thing is in meltdown mode, as Republicans compete to out-Trump one another for 2022 and 2024. “The conspiracy theorists have taken over the party,” says state Sen. Kathy Bernier, a conservative Republican who has proposed keeping ballot drop boxes and now finds herself at the center of Wisconsin’s democracy shitstorm. 

Cam sat down with Bernier to find out more about the fight over the state’s election laws, and why she’s tapping out and heading for retirement: 

You were a county clerk. You’ve worked elections a lot. What do you make of the 2020 election? Do you think it was overall free and fair, and that Biden won?

Democrats became very creative during a pandemic in turning out Democrat voters to the point of borderline legality issues… Does that mean that the people they managed to get to the polls to vote were not legitimate voters? No, it does not mean that. There is not proven voter fraud throughout the state.

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I saw President Trump’s statement on Monday. It seemed to target you and [Wisconsin Republican Assembly Speaker] Robin Vos. How did you feel when you saw that statement?

I am extraordinarily angry, I mean, cuss-word angry, with Donald Trump and the people who seem to think that we’re not conservatives, that we don’t support our state and our country. Donald Trump is not the United States of America. I loved his policies. I loved his work ethic. But his lying to support his position that he’s the legitimate president is not factual. 

Did the attacks you’ve taken from Republicans play any role in your decision to not run for another term?

No—well, that would probably not be truthful; it helped. But when you get up beyond Medicare age, you think, “What do I want to do in my golden years?”

You’re basically the only local Republican lawmaker saying, “Trump is lying. He lost in Wisconsin.” And I want to make sure that is what you’re saying, right?

Yeah, that is what I'm saying, with a caveat: He is lying. He did not win Wisconsin. And he has provided no proof otherwise.

It sounds like you think that ballot boxes with precautions are a good idea.

They are a good idea. I know some hardcore Republicans believe there should be no absentee voting at all. But we’ve always had absentee voting. I vote absentee. It’s just a way for the voter to get their ballot to the clerk in a secure box versus a mailbox, which is probably less secure, to be perfectly honest.

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And I am so sad about where our politics has gone, that we have two gubernatorial candidates, Republican, who said they would never sign that bill. Oh my gosh, you’ve got to be kidding me. 

If Trump is the GOP nominee in 2024, would you vote for him?

No… I would leave it blank. I would never vote for Biden, ever. I just won't vote for [Trump] again, and I just hope that the Republicans come out with Ron DeSantis, actually.

How do you feel about your party right now and why are you considering becoming an independent?

Because the conspiracy theorists have taken over the party.

Make sure you catch Cam’s upcoming profile of Kathy Bernier with more from the mess in the Midwest. 

Tell your friends we’re never “Wisconsin nice” when democracy’s at stake. Sign ’em up for Breaking the Vote!

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You’re a Wisconsin expert now, so it’ll be completely unshocking to hear it was one of the states where Republicans invented fake elector slates for the 2020 coup attempt. This week we learned for the first time that federal prosecutors are sniffing around the fraudulent slates. Deputy AG Lisa Monaco said DOJ prosecutors were “looking at” the bogus slates (coordinated by Rudy Giuliani and Trump campaign officials, remember?), but she hasn’t said much else. Here’s why the fake electors could be in trouble.

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Impeachtree state

May is when Georgias  peach blossoms bloom, and so do the crime probes. A new special grand jury can convene May 2 in Fulton County to investigate potential crimes in Donald Trump’s bid to interfere in the 2020 election, judges said this week. A panel granted District Attorney Fani Willis’ request for the special grand jury, which has the power to issue subpoenas and investigate but doesn’t issue indictments. 


They’ll definitely be interested in Trump’s Jan. 2, 2021, phone call, on tape for all to hear, where he leaned on Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have” from the actual vote. Is that election interference that rises to the level of a crime? But that’s not all. Willis says the special grand jury will also look at things like:

- the sudden resignation of U.S. Attorney Byung Pak, which Pak told Senate investigators was the result of pressure from Trump allies to investigate false election claims.

- Sen. Lindsey Graham’s November 2020 call to Raffensperger where the secretary of state got the distinct impression Graham was asking him to reject legally cast ballots. 

- Rudy Giuliani’s false testimony in front of a Georgia Senate committee in December 2020.

T.W.I.S.™ (This Week in Subpoenas)

Congress has been out, so it’s been a relatively quiet week for the January 6 committee. But “relatively quiet” still means major news. 

• First, John Eastman, the intellectual engine of Trump’s coup attempt and the guy who drew up a road map to help Veep Mike Pence help steal the election, lost his bid to hide his activities from investigators. Eastman wanted to quash a subpoena seeking his email communications via his employer, Chapman University. But a federal judge in California said nope, and also rejected Eastman’s contention that the January 6 committee is illegitimate because Republicans didn’t appoint their own members. (That last bit could be important since several Trumpist Republicans are trying the same theory to get out of their own subpoenas.) Judge Carter followed his ruling with some instructions for Eastman: Stop dawdling and get to it

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• Conspiracy theorist and genuinely bad person Alex Jones said he visited with committee investigators this week, where he pleaded the Fifth “almost 100 times” during questioning. Jones shared this gem of jurisprudence on his radio show headed straight for the “not how this works” file: "The questions were overall pretty reasonable. And I wanted to answer the questions. But at the same time, it's a good thing I didn't, because I'm the type that tries to answer things correctly, even if I don't know all the answers, and they can then kind of claim that's perjury."  

(By the way, you can catch up on who in Trumpworld has said what to the January 6 committee so far with this handy guide).

• Oh, hey, if you’re a Trump acolyte who’s been subpoenaed and would like the former president to help pay your legal bills out of his nine-figure war chest, do get bent. Trump, whose PERSONAL legal bills are currently being footed by the Republican National Committee, has been referring all such requests to right-wing activist Matt Schlapp, who controls a legal defense fund. 

Former AG Bill Barr and Donald Trump don't talk, so Barr won’t be applying for funds. But we also learned this week that Barr has been cooperating with the committee, meeting as recently as last week to answer questions. Committee member Rep. Zoe Lofgren said Barr had spoken to the committee “more than once” and that he’d been helpful. 

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Fortune favors the Diebold

Barr resigned in mid-December 2020, so he wasn’t around when the last-ditch coup plot of Jan. 6 got going. But he probably does know a thing or two about the executive order sitting on Trump’s desk calling for the military to seize voting machines. The order, which was never signed, came to light in that 800-page tranche of White House documents Trump unsuccessfully tried to hide from the committee. 

VICE News’ David Gilbert has the story on the (very) likely authors of the purely authoritarian idea: “Kraken” lawyer Sidney Powell and her pal, insurrection PowerPoint guru Phil Waldron. Looks like significant portions of the EO lifted their language right from stuff that lived on Powell’s website for months, and was celebrated by QAnon cultists too.

Oathin’s 11 update 

Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes and nine other ’Keepers pleaded not guilty to seditious conspiracy and other charges this week. An 11th guy, alleged co-conspirator Edward Vallejo, wasn’t at the arraignment. Read the 17-count indictment here, where prosecutors allege the group came to Washington heavily armed, trained up, and ready for Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act, deputizing them into a kind of “shock troop militia” for the coup. Rhodes was ordered detained pending trial.

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“This is so obviously a politically motivated witch hunt… I mean, where is the investigation about Hunter Biden in this whole thing? You heard on the tape, the President was calling for one thing and that is the truth.” — Georgia gubernatorial candidate David Perdue, on the Fulton County DA’s investigation into the Jan. 2, 2021, call in which Trump asked the secretary of state to “find 11,780 votes.”

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New Subversion Just Dropped — The Cyber Ninjas’ audit confirmed the Arizona election and the Cyber Ninjas themselves are no more. But none of that has deterred Arizona Republicans from going after a whole mess of new election changes inspired by nonexistent security problems. They advanced HB2596 this week, a buffet of restrictions ripped right from the worst fever dreams of election conspiracists. Measures include a ban on automatic voter registration, new ID requirements, hologram-embossed ballots (seriously), and severe restrictions on mail-in absentee voting (which Arizona has had for decades, enjoying national model status). It all has the state’s GOP cheering a return to “1958-style voting.” 

But the worst provision appears to be the one that gives the Legislature–and not election officials–final say over certifying results, which could be ripe for partisan abuse.

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It Can Get Worse — Now that Republicans successfully filibustered voting protections in the Senate, talks are underway at least plugging the hole that Trump tried to exploit to steal the election in Congress on Jan. 6. A new paper lays out just how easily a perfect storm of corruption, legal loopholes, and bad faith could combine to let him try again in 2024. TL;DR: Under one unlikely-but-realistic scenario, all it takes to exploit the Electoral Count Act and legally subvert the voters’ will is a Trumpist swing-state governor (David Perdue, I’m looking in your direction) and what is probably after 2022 going to be Trumpist-controlled GOP House.  

The study bubbled up courtesy of the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent, who you should follow and read for excellent democracy-and-elections analysis. As Sargent points out, the unlikely scenarios are exactly the ones policymakers should prepare for, especially considering how just a handful of good-faith Republicans stood between us and crisis the last time Trump didn’t want to cede power. 

Mike Has Rejected Your Invitation — Right-wing comfort tycoon and election conspiracist Mike Lindell has apparently stopped showing up for the legal negotiations that could cost him $1.3 billion. Lindell’s being sued—along with Sydney Powell, Rudy Giuliani, and others—by Dominion Voting Systems, which alleges the defendants’ relentless lies about the election defamed its products and damaged its bottom line. 

Everyone was negotiating over discovery as a judge had ordered, until Lindell’s team just… stopped showing up. Lindell is apparently mad the judge refused to dismiss the case and is protesting until he can appeal it to the Supreme Court. Good luck with that!

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Coup Nation: Americans across the country participated in an effort to subvert democracy.

Trump followers zero in on secretary of state campaigns.