Wisconsin Recount Manual Changes, Machine Audit Cause Angry Debate

Wisconsin Recount Manual Changes

Last-minute Wisconsin recount manual changes, proposed by Election Commission staff after President Donald Trump requested a partial recount, and a Republican commissioner’s proposal for a statewide voting machine audit, which wasn’t allowed by the Commission chair, caused heated debate at an emergency Commission meeting on Nov. 18.

“You’re changing the rules of the game in the middle of the game,” said Republican commissioner Dean Knudson to Democrat Mark Thomsen as they debated changes to the manual. One key question was whether every absentee ballot mail-in application needed to be reviewed. “I would agree with Dean that we not change the rules as we move forward,” said Republican Commissioner Robert Spindell, who supports review. Knudson said it was long-standing precedent and part of the current manual.

“Our manual was wrong. This is not a required part of the recount,” insisted Chairperson Ann Jacobs, supporting the change. “It’s not required by law.” The commission deadlocked on whether to accept the staff’s changes to the manual, which means they won’t go into place, although Democrats argued that state law supersedes it. “We are leaving (clerks) to their own devices,” said Jacobs, adding that it was “dumb” and not required in state law that clerks review all absentee ballot applications. “The statute governs,” said Thomsen. “We have a manual,” disagreed Knudson. He said it’s just the changes that were nixed, so the earlier manual requiring application review stands.

Around midnight, tensions escalated, as Jacobs refused to allow a vote on Knudson’s request for a statewide audit of voting machines if certain error rates are found in a random sample, including those by Dominion Voting Systems, which are in 19 state counties. Jacobs is a major Democratic Joe Biden donor who recently shared a meme that “Deplorables was too kind a word” and posted a photo showing her with Biden as her Facebook cover photo.

Ann Jacobs Facebook cover picture.

“You are asking for a statewide audit of every single voting machine…those words have never been uttered in the Wisconsin Election Commission…” snapped Jacobs, adding that commissioners had “never ever talked about auditing every single machine in the state…We have thousands of machines across the state.” She claimed Dominion machines were all in counties that voted for Donald Trump.

“We’re not winging it at midnight,” continued Jacobs, chastising Knudson’s request for “a statewide audit of all machines of a particular type… you’re pulling it out at midnight, which is pretty sneaky….You are asking for a statewide audit..we’ve never had an error rate of any kind.” Jacobs trashed what she called Knudson’s “indulgence in scaremongering over Dominion” Voter Systems, the controversial election machine company. She called it a “massive proposal,” to audit voting machines statewide. Mark Thomsen, another major Biden donor who is a Democratic commissioner, said the Commission staff should have discretion on the matter. (We didn’t find any federal donations by the three conservative commission members in 2019-2020. They are all GOP donors to state candidates.)

Thomsen and Jacobs are two commissioners who orchestrated the exclusion of the Green Party from the Wisconsin ballot. Knudson is a veterinarian who is a former Republican Assemblyman who was chair of the St. Croix County Republican Party.

“The chair will not allow us to talk about things because she decides it’s not germane,” retorted Knudson. But Jacobs claimed there no money for the statewide audit, and it was not “noticed for tonight.” Knudson said that the Dominion equipment “has been under a lot of discussion. There are 19 counties that either use all Dominion equipment in every municipality or some, and 11 have only Dominion equipment.”

Commission Deputy Administrator Richard Rydecki said that state law requires machine audits after every election. However, only some machines are audited via random selection. The commission staff paused the audit to wait for word on a recount. Rydecki said that 29 of the 190 reporting units randomly selected for audit are Dominion, which was oversampled. He said the state hasn’t seen problems with Dominion machines below and said he believed concerns “unfounded.”

“So much has been written and said about the reliability of our voting equipment much of it not based on fact, but it has led to questions in a great percentage of voters,” insisted Knudson.

Specifically, Knudson had suggested that if “the audit of the vote total for any candidate in an audit reporting unit differs by more than .1 percent from the machine count total or if the candidate receiving the greatest number of votes changes, that that would trigger a statewide audit of all the voting equipment of that manufacturer.”

“Not to ask a silly question, but how would we do that and pay for it? And what does audit mean?” asked Jacobs. Knudson said he was not understanding why if “what you’ve been thinking of as conspiracy theories and unfounded was now found to have a basis…you’re not going to find the money?”

“It’s out of order. We haven’t noticed it,” Jacobs said emphatically.

Knudson pointed out that commissioners were concerned about Russian hackers in the past, questioning why election security concerns had evaporated.

He was also concerned that audit results initially wouldn’t be completed until Nov. 30, when certification is Dec. 1. “If something goes wrong, then we’ve totally missed our certification deadline,” agreed Democratic Commissioner Julie Glancey. “I agree the deadline should be moved up.” It then was – to Nov. 27.

“Waiting until the last day to report the findings is not correct,” insisted Knudson. “You’re making yourselves look like you have something to hide.”

“All of a sudden we’ve forgotten the Russians and North Koreans,” Republican Commissioner Robert Spindell, a former Ted Cruz delegate who served on the Milwaukee Election Commission, concurred. He said that “moving to an earlier date is a good idea” to dispel conspiracy theories. If machines “have all sorts of problems, what do we do then?”


Wisconsin Recount Manual Changes

The commissioners also split over some of the Wisconsin recount manual changes. That came after the White House press secretary raised the issue earlier in the day.

For hours, commissioners painstakingly went through the Wisconsin recount manual changes, which were outlined in red in a revised manual. Republican commissioners raised concern that vague language would allow Democrats in Milwaukee and Dane Counties to use pandemic-related public health concerns to make it difficult for observers to monitor the recount. They also raised concerns about Trump’s claim that batches of absentee ballots were improperly cured or accepted without applications. You can read Trump’s petition and read more about his claims here.

Democratic commissioners bristled at the Republicans’ concerns; the two Democratic commissioners who are large Joe Biden donors, Mark Thomsen and Chairperson Ann Jacobs, were most vocal in pushing back at the GOP concerns.

Eventually, commissioners deadlocked over some key changes along partisan lines. The deadlock occurred on the question of requiring review of absentee ballot applications. Because the commission deadlocked, the past guidance that the applications must be reviewed stays in place, but Democrats then suggested that the recount manual be disregarded instead, in favor of state recount laws.

Knudson was concerned that there was not enough documentation with absentee ballot requests made online. He didn’t think a log was sufficient.

Thomsen, a civil lawyer who often represents people accusing police of brutality or in shootings, said he didn’t believe the president’s claims that clerks “did something illegal all over the state. We conduct fair elections.” He claimed that absentee ballot rules were approved in 2016 with Republican support and after advice from the Attorney General.

Wisconsin Recount Manual Changes

But Spindell, a Republican commissioner, said, “We don’t know if a bunch of ballots were sent out without application; if someone is raising that question why wouldn’t we want to prove it. We want to make sure everything is transparent.” He stressed that seeing the actual applications as opposed to just reviewing a log was important.

Wisconsin Recount Manual Changes

Jacobs, a former public defender who is lawyer in Milwaukee, expressed that she was “shocked and offended you have implied in any way that clerks in Milwaukee and Dane sent out unrequested ballots.” She called it a “vague, paranoid conspiracy.” She called it “absurd” to imply clerks were “criminal thieves. We know that didn’t happen.”

Spindell noted that Trump filed his petition for a recount in the morning and “then a new revised manual comes out trying to hit one of their items…We don’t agree with the revisions to the manual. Some of us do not agree with all of the aspects of it.”

Thomsen interjected that a lot of it had to do with COVID-19. Meagan Wolf, Election Commission director, said her staff was asked by commissioners and clerks to look at the “intersection between public health guidance and observers.” She said they were asked to “configure the recount to make sure everyone is safe.”

Wisconsin Recount Manual Changes

Knudson expressed concerns that “we should clearly say in balancing these two priorities that the right to view what is going on is more important than any local safety consideration they come up with.”

Jacobs insisted that the changes don’t “mean no one gets to see.”

Wisconsin Recount Manual Changes

Knudson insisted that “the right to observe the recount should not be infringed by any local health ordinance. We’re dealing with the right to vote, which is a constitutional right,” but Thomsen said that “it’s not some constitutional right for everyone to be an observer.”

Knudson continued to stress that pandemic Wisconsin recount manual changes could prevent observers from being able to see. “Democrats tried over and over again to change our election process, using the pandemic as a cover,” he said. “I didn’t just fall off the truck; I know what’s going to go on here. The recount is in two counties that are completely controlled by one party…and if they can figure out a way using the pandemic to make it harder to see what’s going on, to make it harder to observe then that wouldn’t be out of character.”

“We don’t have the power to overrule a local health edict,” said Thomsen.

Spindell said he wants to make sure representatives of the president “can see each individual envelope.”

Democratic Commissioner Julie Glancey lashed out at what she called “Democrat bashing. All you (Spindell) and Dean keep talking about are evil Democrats are going to do something nasty. I’m tired of that.”

Knudson responded, “You’ve got to be able to get close to see, social distancing that’s just not going to be possible.” Republican commissioners suggested plexiglass.

They took out a sentence about balancing public health guidance.

Wolfe raised concern that someone could cause “a threat to materials with sanitizer spray” or by refusing to wear a mask for a section in the manual changes that would allow clerks to ask observers to leave.

The Commission disagreed less on the timeline, which would give clerks 13 days to complete the recount.

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