Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election in Wisconsin with 1,630,866 votes to Donald Trump’s 1,610,184. As in other swing states, Trump and his allies challenged the Wisconsin results with baseless lawsuits and demands for unnecessary investigations. Wisconsin was the site of possibly the most audits into the 2020 election, with multiple government investigations as well as a number of private audits.
The most prominent and expensive audit was launched in May 2021 by Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos. The Speaker and other Wisconsin Republicans were pressured to conduct a “forensic audit” by Trump, who said on Jul. 23, “These REPUBLICAN ‘leaders’ need to step up and support the people who elected them by providing them a full forensic investigation. If they don’t, I have little doubt that they will be primaried and quickly run out of office.”
Vos quickly caved to Trump’s pressure and escalated the audit by appointing former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman as a “special counsel” to oversee the audit process. Gableman is a conspiracy theorist who called the 2020 election “stolen” prior to being hired as special counsel. According to Vos, Gableman’s wide-ranging audit investigated voting in nursing homes, adherence to voter residency requirements, votes by incarcerated citizens, and donations from the Mark Zuckerberg-funded Center for Tech and Civic Life to Wisconsin municipalities.
Another audit was initiated by far-right state Rep. Janel Brandtjen, who chairs the Assembly Campaign and Elections Committee. In July 2021, she announced that she would “initiate a more intensive investigation” of possible election fraud. The audit under Brandtjen’s authority was conducted after the Campaign and Elections Committee was bestowed with investigatory and subpoena powers. Brandtjen intended this audit to be a “cyber-forensic” investigation of voting machines, ballot marking devices, and other election equipment.
Finally, Wisconsin conducted an audit under the auspices of the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau. This audit reviewed 60 tests of voting machines as well as compliance with election laws and procedures related to training of poll workers and conduct before and after election day.
- In August 2021, an event called “Audit the Vote” was held at the Wisconsin Capitol. It was organized by right-wing activist and former Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke. In his speech to the crowd, Clarke inaccurately said that all voters in Wisconsin were illegally sent ballots. (They were actually sent ballot applications.)
- Rep. Brandtjen also spoke at the Audit the Vote rally, stating, “You deserve to know the truth, and it has been a long process. It is my job as a representative to do oversight…we are going to fulfill that obligation.”
- In March 2022, Gableman advocated for the extension of his contract to conduct an audit, despite having failed to find any significant evidence of fraud. While he also called for decertification of Wisconsin’s Electoral College votes, he said “This will not end today. This is an important topic, and there’s a lot of work to do. And I will be back.”
- Wisconsin taxpayers spent more than $1 million on the audit conducted by Gableman. The initial contract given to Gabelman was for $676,000 and was extended indefinitely on May 1, 2022, affording Gabelman $5,500 a month in salary, including $2,500 per month to cover his office rent.
- The audit led by Gableman and Vos failed to find any substantial evidence of fraud in the 2020 election, according to Dane County Judge Valerie Bailey-Rihn, who made the finding in a hearing in which she awarded attorney’s fees to American Oversight, a watchdog group that challenged Vos and Gableman’s withholding of records from the public. Vos fired Gableman from his role as Special Counsel on Aug. 12, 2022, effectively ending the oft-maligned audit.
- In addition, the non-partisan audit conducted by the Legislative Audit Bureau did not find any material issues with voting machines used in 2020. However, the bureau did make recommendations for improving voter registration and training of poll workers while underscoring the security of the 2020 election. Speaking about the results, State Sen. Robert Cowles said, “However, despite concerns with statewide elections procedures, this audit showed us that the election was largely safe and secure.”
- In August 2022, with mounting expenditures and nothing to show for it, Wisconsin Democrats demanded an audit of the Vos-Gableman audit. Democrats on the legislature’s Joint Audit Committee sent a letter to Republican committee co-chair Robert Cowles that stated, “The [Office of Special Council led by Gableman] appears to be one of the most blatant misappropriations of tax dollars in our state’s history.”
- Numerous country clerks and other officials refused to comply with the audit led by Brandtjen and the Assembly Campaign and Elections Committee. For instance, Milwaukee County Clerk George Christenson refused to appear before the committee’s subpoena, calling the subpoena “invalid.”