MADISON, Wisconsin (AP) — Doug La Follette adjusts to a new status in Wisconsin politics: relevance.
The 81-year-old foreign secretary has been a forgotten man for four decades, locked in a basement office and stripped of most of his duties long ago. However, that is changing as Republicans investigate an attempt to shift election oversight, including the certification of results, from a bipartisan election commission to La Follette’s office.
The effort is less a sign of confidence in La Follette than a move by Republicans to shift power to an office they could someday control. While Republicans say the change will make Wisconsin’s top election official answer directly to voters, it also raises concerns that the party could rally behind candidates embracing Donald Trump’s lie that the last presidential election was stolen.
That is especially troubling to those who have seen Trump’s efforts to pressure election officials to improperly influence the certification of the 2020 ballot.
“Regardless of the actual number of votes, this one person would then be able to say who won or lost the election,” said Matthew Rothschild, executive director of the government watchdog group Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. “This would threaten the very foundation of our democracy: that the people choose who represents us, with our sacred freedom to vote.”
Multiple reviews, recounts, lawsuits and an investigation by The Associated Press have confirmed that no widespread fraud was committed during the latest race at the White House. Nationally, federal and state election officials and Trump’s own attorney general have said there was no credible evidence that the elections anywhere in the country were tainted.
The new focus on La Follette’s seat is a sign of the lingering fallout from the 2020 election, and Wisconsin isn’t alone. Once sleepy secretaries of state already overseeing the election are now hot-button races, with Trump himself paying close attention. He has endorsed candidates for secretaries of state in Georgia, Arizona and Michigan, among others — all of which were pivotal in Democrat Joe Biden’s election as president in 2020.
The future of La Follette’s office also raises the stakes of the Wisconsin governor’s race, which the incumbent government Tony Evers, a Democrat, is already pronouncing as a referendum on American democracy.
For Wisconsin to join the 36 other states where the Secretary of State is the chief election officer, Republicans would first have to evict Evers. He is a supporter of the bipartisan commission, whose members are appointed by the governor and legislative leaders in an effort to reduce political influence in the management of elections.
With Evers gone, Republicans can use their virtually guaranteed legislative majority next year to dissolve the Election Commission and transfer its duties to the Secretary of State. That would give the office holder more power in 2024, when Trump is allowed to seek the White House again.
State Representative Timothy Ramthun, a Republican nominee for governor, introduced a bill in February to do just that, though it didn’t get a hearing before the legislative session ended. Kevin Nicholson, another GOP candidate for governor, has said he supports the idea, which has also been pushed by a conservative think tank associated with former GOP governor Scott Walker.
La Follette said he decided to run again to prevent Republicans from meddling in the election. He noted Trump’s 2020 phone call to Georgia’s GOP secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, asking Raffensperger to “find” enough votes to undo Trump’s state loss to Biden. Raffensperger refused despite veiled threats from Trump and now faces a GOP challenger in this month’s primaries.
“Let’s say in the future Mr. X calls the Secretary of State in Wisconsin and says, ‘I only need 5,000 votes.’ I’d hang them,” said La Follette. “A Republican of a certain persuasion may not hang up.”
All four Republicans will compete in the August primaries for support for the Secretary of State’s nomination and hand over election control to the office. Each has sharply criticized the electoral commission’s handling of the 2020 presidential election, saying the commission’s interpretations of state law inappropriately allowed the widespread use of ballot boxes and unsupervised voting by nursing home residents. That, they falsely claim, led to fraudulent votes that propelled Biden to victory over Trump.
Republicans have spent months trying to discredit the committee, including by pressuring impartial director Meagan Wolfe to resign.
Wolfe declined an interview, but the committee’s chairman, Democrat Ann Jacobs, called Republican pressure to provide election surveillance to the Secretary of State “a disguised attempt to politicize the election administration.”
“They want to change the umpires because they lost the game,” she said.
State Representative Amy Loudenbeck, who leads Republican candidates for secretary of state in fundraising, said appointing the secretary of state in charge of the election would make someone directly accountable to voters.
“I strongly believe that we should look at every option to increase transparency and confidence in our electoral process,” she said. Loudenbeck said she would be “firm in my refusal” if anyone pressured her to influence the election results.
A distant relative of Wisconsin’s famous progressive governor and 1924 presidential nominee, “Fighting” Bob La Follette, La Follette probably owes that surname to his long tenure. He was first elected Secretary of State in 1974. After failing as lieutenant governor in 1978, he won his old office in 1982 and has won reelection nine times since.
The offices’ only duties are to sit on a wooden board of the state and verify documents that Americans and foreigners need to travel. Republicans banished La Follette to the Capitol basement and stripped the office of a ceremonial duty to affix the state seal to laws after he refused to do so for the then-government. Walker’s law restricting public unions in 2011.
La Follette’s once-comfortable margins have tightened in recent years, and in what may be a sign of Democrats’ concerns about preserving the office, Alexia Sabor, chairman of the Democratic Party’s board of directors, announced Dane County, recently faced a primary challenge. He’s also rarely had a Republican challenger as tough as Loudenbeck, who spent eight years on the legislature’s powerful budget committee.
La Follette has never relied on raising a lot of money to win, and he said he won’t before the primaries — even as lingering fears of COVID-19 hamper the retail campaigns he’s run in the past. . If he wins the primaries, he said, he knows he’ll need money to win in November, especially if Trump or others start pumping dollars into the Republican candidate’s campaign.
“I hope the Democratic Party establishment, which wants to keep the office in the hands of a Democrat for very obvious reasons, would be willing to fund that,” he said.
The president of the state party, Ben Wikler, was wary of Democrats’ plans for the race.
“Republican secretary of state candidates are seeking powers that can only be conferred by a Republican governor,” Wikler said. “Evers’ veto is the most important barrier preventing election undermining in 2024.”
Follow Todd Richmond on Twitter at https://twitter.com/trichmond1
JOIN THE CALL