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Republicans claw back control of elections in key states

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  • Tried to oust Wisconsin’s elections chief after years of empowering baseless conspiracies about the 2020 election.
  • Remade election boards in North Carolina in a way that could increase stalemates and imperil expansive access to early voting.
  • Dismantled the election office in Texas’ largest county after a series of problems there.

Election watchdog groups warn that the moves threaten to further tear down public confidence in a system that has been relentlessly attacked since 2020.
The efforts come as former President Donald Trump, the likely GOP presidential nominee, continues to refuse to accept his 2020 loss — and now faces multiple legal charges over his effort to overturn it. In the aftermath of the 2020 elections, election officials across the country were overwhelmed, grappling with spurious so-called “audits” of the vote that were rooted in conspiracy theories and dealing with targeted harassment campaigns. Some election officials see the latest efforts as a continuation of that.

“I do think there is a trend,” said Meagan Wolfe, the administrator of the Wisconsin Elections Commission that Republican lawmakers are trying to fire.

There are “political people,” she said in an interview, who “want to try to get rid of people that are going to stand strong against partisan pressures. That’s certainly what I’m experiencing.”

Republicans remake local elections offices in North Carolina and Texas

The most direct structural changes Republicans have made are to local elections offices in North Carolina and Texas.

Those changes have targeted offices on the county level where elections are run and where officials are responsible for things like registering voters, running polling places and actually counting votes.

In North Carolina, Republicans changed the structure of state and local election boards in ways that would give more power to the legislature and increase the likelihood of deadlock on issues such as whether a county should expand early voting

Historically, the governor’s party has had a 3-2 majority on the state board of elections and local county boards. The GOP supermajorities in the legislature passed a law last month, overriding Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto, to make the boards evenly split.

Republicans say the law will promote bipartisan consensus in election decisions. But evenly divided boards increase the chances of stalemates, which could mean defaulting to statutory minimums on key issues. Should, for instance, a local board deadlock on early voting locations or timing, counties could default to just one early voting site.

“The deadlocks that will be created on these new boards of elections at the state and local levels likely will reduce early voting and create longer lines at the polls,” Cooper said in a statement announcing a lawsuit that argued the law illegally usurped executive authority. (Senate President Phil Berger’s office did not make him available for an interview, and Speaker Tim Moore’s office did not respond.)

North Carolina voters in 2018 overwhelmingly rejected a proposal that would have made similar changes, and the state Supreme Court ruled that year that a similar attempt to overhaul the state board was illegal. But the court had a Democratic majority then and now has a Republican one.

Texas Republicans, meanwhile, have targeted local election administration in Harris County — the state’s largest county and a blue-leaning one that is home to Houston — by passing a pair of laws applying exclusively to it.

One law transferred election duties from a full-time election administrator — whose office was created in 2020 — to the county clerk and tax assessor-collector. The other law allowed the secretary of state’s office to directly take over elections under certain circumstances.

Republicans in the state said the laws were necessary because voters had lost faith in Harris County’s ability to run elections. Harris County challenged the law eliminating the election office and won in a lower court, but the state Supreme Court allowed the law to go into effect ahead of an appeal.

That set up those two other offices — which are both currently held by elected Democrats — to run this year’s municipal elections, in which Houston’s next mayor will be elected, with little time to prepare.

Wisconsin Republicans target state elections chief

In Wisconsin, Republican lawmakers’ efforts have been less focused on structural changes and more on removing a specific individual.

Specifically, they have targeted Wolfe by spreading baseless conspiracy theories about the 2020 election being stolen. Some lawmakers also took issue with how the commission handled voting during the pandemic — including how absentee ballots were sent to nursing homes — which Wolfe implemented after the bipartisan elections board’s approval.

“Three years after an election, after multiple audits, examinations, recounts, litigation, I’m not sure why we still find ourselves in this moment,” Wolfe said.

The attempts to remove Wolfe have been layered in complicated procedural fights.

Wolfe is currently serving in a “holdover” capacity after Democrats on the state election commission abstained from formally putting her up for another term, fearful that state Senate Republicans would reject her.

Republicans in the Senate called a vote on Wolfe anyway and in a party line result declared her removed from the job — although they later admitted in court it was a “symbolic” vote. The state Senate president also sent a letter to the Assembly speaker, a fellow Republican, urging him to impeach Wolfe.

Last week, a judge issued a temporary injunction affirming that Wolfe is lawfully serving as a holdover and said Republicans cannot, for now, remove her. (The office of State House Speaker Robin Vos, a Republican, did not respond to a request for comment, and GOP Senate President Chris Kapenga’s office did not make him available.)

Elections officials are worried about the impact of the changes — and the disruption to 2024 preparations

The continued changes threaten to disrupt preparations for the 2024 elections, local officials said, and they worry about what might come next.

“What is that going to look like when we go into next year, and we’re bringing things before the boards?” asked Sara Lavere, the elections director for Brunswick County and the president of the North Carolina Association of Directors of Elections. “And what if we can’t get a majority vote on something because it’s split by party lines?”

Running even the most routine election requires months of planning, work that often takes place out of mind for voters and lawmakers. Presidential elections are even more complex. With primaries rapidly approaching, the work of election offices is well underway, and officials and voting rights advocates say they need certainty now about election rules.

“Gridlock is something that creates uncertainty and delay within a board of elections that often has to move quite quickly to make sure that elections are administered safely and securely,” said Hilary Harris Klein, the senior counsel for voting rights at the liberal-leaning Southern Coalition for Social Justice.

In Texas, election administrators in the state warned Votebeat, an elections-focused newsroom, that the changes could disrupt 2024 planning.

In Wisconsin, Wolfe said “planning for 2024” had been made “very difficult.” She said that there has been a “destabilizing effect that it has on us, my staff, and election administrators at the local level, because they don’t know what next year is going to look like.”

And some local officials fear that the fight around Wolfe’s role could trickle down to efforts to target their offices too. That, combined with the still-present harassment and threats that officials across the country have faced since the 2020 election, have some election officials worried the environment around next year’s contest will only get worse.

“It’s an attempt to bully and intimidate the election commission heading into 2024,” said Dane County Clerk Scott McDonell, a Democrat. “It’s part of an effort to kind of call our elections into question.”


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