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Making Sense of Wisconsin’s Absurd Election Investigation

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Michael R. Ford
October 19, 2021

In his classic 1959 essay, Charles Lindblom challenged the assumption of rational decisionmaking. He argued that means and ends are, in practice, not distinct from one another. I have been reflecting on Lindblom as I follow the Wisconsin Assembly’s problematic investigation of the 2020 election. On the surface, it seems perfectly reasonable to review how an election under challenging circumstances went. What worked well? What could be done better? What can be done to improve election administration in the future? The actual course of the investigation, however, reveals something much less reasonable.

It starts with the person running the investigation, former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman. Again, on the surface it seems like a good pick; someone who served on the highest court in a state should be qualified and impartial. But, prior to the current investigation Gableman publicly claimed the 2020 election was stolen. He further damaged his credibility by publicly stating he did not understand how elections are supposed to be run in Wisconsin. Both of these declarations make it very unlikely his conclusions will be accepted by the public-at-large.

The process has also been a comedy of errors. Local Wisconsin election clerks received an e-mail from a Gmail account from someone named John Delta that was signed by Gableman. The e-mail appeared to be spam, demonstrated little knowledge of Wisconsin election administration, and served only to confuse clerks. Things deteriorated further when Gableman announced subpoenas of the mayors of Wisconsin’s five largest cities prior to them actually being served. Incorrect city names in the actual subpoenas upped the confusion level.

There was more confusion to come. After issuing subpoenas, conflicting information about who is actually being requested for interviews emerged. Mayors were also confused when offered immunity from prosecution if they testified. Aside from the fact that mayors do not administer elections in Wisconsin (clerks do), the offer of immunity implies, without evidence, that a crime was committed. Along the way Gableman also compared the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s reporting to the work of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. Though Gableman later retracted the statement, it painted his investigation in a poor light.

To state the obvious, this is not a credible investigation into anything. It is an example of elected officials using the administrative power of investigation to advance a political goal. Which brings me back to Linblom. The investigation is not a means for identifying wrongdoing. The investigation is both the means and the ends. One cannot fully blame Gableman for a fiasco that was preordained by holding an investigation solely for the purposes of saying there is an investigation.

Supporters of the election investigation argue they are only asking questions because the electoral process is worth protecting. Why would someone oppose an investigation unless they have something to hide? The problem with this position is that it rests on the assumption that there is something to investigate—or, at the very least, some type of probable cause for further investigation. If such probable cause exists, it has not been shared.

Instead the 2020 election investigation is just the latest example of Wisconsin’s broken partisan politics. I again think of Lindblom, who concluded the correct course of action is often the one that is accepted. Here is where I get worried. When hyper-partisanship bleeds into core administrative functions, the results of those administrative functions are less likely to be accepted by citizens.

It is tempting to dismiss the Wisconsin election investigation as a distraction that will conclude and quickly be forgotten. But, I think it deserves to be taken seriously. The confusion around the investigation puts local election officials in a position where it is impossible to comply with said investigation. It puts officials in an unfair position where anything they do can be criticized as problematic, and ultimately used to create doubt about election integrity. In a democracy, a lack of faith in the administrators running elections destroys faith in democracy.

What can we do to minimize the damage of this and other phony investigations? Certainly we can (and should) celebrate the work of local election clerks administering elections in such a challenging environment. Longer term we can protect the non-partisan nature of local government wherever it comes under threat. But, in the immediate term, we can call out phony election investigations for what they are.

Author: Michael R. Ford is an associate professor of public administration at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, where he teaches graduate courses in budgeting and research methods. He frequently publishes on the topics of public and nonprofit board governance, accountability and school choice. He currently serves as the president of the Midwest Public Affairs Conference, and as an elected member of the Oshkosh, WI Common Council.

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