Be Careful What You Wish For

Dan O’Donnell raises some deep concerns about a Republican plan to strip WEC of its power and turn election administration over to the hyper-partisan Secretary of State


December 6, 2023
Perspective by Dan O’Donnell


Legislative Republicans have been dreaming of dissolving the thoroughly compromised, rabidly partisan Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC) for years, but their latest proposal to do so might actually make free and fair elections in this state less likely.

On Tuesday, State Senator Dan Knodl and Representative Tyler Bodden unveiled a plan to dissolve WEC and transfer its authority to the Secretary of State.  On its face, this seems perfectly reasonable—38 other states’ elections are run by their Secretaries of State—but is potentially deeply problematic.

Current Secretary of State Sarah Godlewski, who was handed the job in a wink-wink “surprise” appointment after Doug La Follette retired shortly after being sworn in for a 245th term in office last spring, has talked openly of using her position to “increase access to the ballot,” which is thinly veiled code for “turn out as many Democrat votes as humanly possible.”

This would be nothing new for the hyper-partisan Godlewski, who in 2016 worked as a get-out-the-vote coordinator for Hillary Clinton (although she bizarrely did not bother to vote herself), but her determination to get involved in election administration unnerved the equally partisan WEC Administrator Meagan Wolfe.

“I think that what we really need in elections, and as election officials, is for people to help ensure that the public knows that election officials are the official source of information when it comes to elections,” she said at the time, chiding Godlewski for appearing in an election panel shortly after taking office.

“It certainly was confusing to me to see that she was participating in a panel like that,” Wolfe added.

If even Wolfe, who Republicans are trying to remove from office over her overtly partisan handling of state elections, has an issue with Sarah Godlewski sticking her nose in election administration, then why don’t Knodl and Bodden?  Their hearts are obviously in the right place; WEC has proven itself incapable of impartially administering elections and must be abolished, but vesting power in a Democrat hack who is just itching to seize it seems, well, unwise.

Knodl and Bodden insist that Godlewski’s newfound power would be overseen by the Republican-controlled Legislature, but this is fundamentally the same faulty argument used to replace the staggeringly corrupt Government Accountability Board (GAB) with WEC in 2015.  Then-Governor Scott Walker and Legislative Republicans believed that replacing the (overwhelmingly liberal) retired judges who oversaw the GAB with three appointed Republicans and three appointed Democrats would lead to fair decisions.

It clearly didn’t.  WEC staff, many of whom migrated over from the GAB, routinely run roughshod over Republican commissioners ho have proven themselves all to willing to side with their Democratic counterparts…even when they admit that they are breaking the law when doing so.  The system doesn’t work because those tasked with oversight are essentially powerless to stop their underlings.

A new system with Godlewski as the new Wolfe would suffer from the same fatal flaw.  Legislative Republicans may convince themselves that they—like the retired judges and WEC commissioners before them—provide the ultimate check, ultimate power vests in those who make the final decisions.

If that is Sarah Godlewski and that staff either she hires or who come to her from the remains of WEC, then it may prove to be impossible to stop their slanted decisions, as both retired judges and WEC commissioners before them have learned.

While it is undeniably true that elections in Wisconsin could hardly be handled worse than they have been by WEC, Republicans should be careful what they wish for, because handing over control of elections to Sarah Godlewski is exactly what Godlewski is wishing for, too.