CHIPPEWA FALLS, Wis. — The cash bar was open for business, the Lilydale Dance Hall decked out in holiday garland, but Michael Gableman wasn't here with good tidings.
The attorney stood in front of Republican activists to share horror stories he'd heard in his investigation of the 2020 election: ballot harvesting, dead people left on state voter rolls and private grants to operate COVID-era elections used to get out the vote for Joe Biden, some claims misleading, some unsubstantiated. Gableman admitted he doesn't think China or Russia hacked into voting machines, but they easily could have.
"I don't think there's anything too confusing about taking the dead people off of the voter rolls," Gabelman said under the holiday lights, a stark reminder that more than a year had passed since Donald Trump lost the presidency.
Scenes like this are playing out across Wisconsin in the most aggressive effort by Republicans in any battleground state to pump new life into scrutinizing the last election. While some of the players are the same, their aim is different than it was a year ago, when groups unsuccessfully tried to overturn results that elected Biden. Republicans' focus now is trying to subvert election boards and long-standing voting protocols in Wisconsin ahead of the critical midterm and 2024 presidential race.
"What you are seeing are people literally advocating for maybe having an election but allowing the state Legislature to override it regardless of who wins and install their own preferred candidate," said Ann Jacobs, the Democratic chair of the bipartisan Wisconsin Elections Commission, which is under attack by Republicans. "For a while it was sort of done quietly, and now it is just out in the open, this advocacy for the elimination of democratically elected representatives."
Gableman's taxpayer-funded investigation into the election has stretched on for months, flooding the state's large cities with data requests. He's asked to jail the mayors of Madison and Green Bay if they don't comply with requests for private interviews. Some Republicans are calling for mass resignations from people who run Wisconsin elections. The Racine County Sheriff wants criminal charges brought against most members of the Wisconsin Elections Commission.
"On the one hand, it's absolutely laughable because there's no legal basis here. They clearly don't know what they're doing," Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway said. "On the other hand, it's terrifying because it illustrates the lengths they are willing to go to cast doubt on our elections."
Madison's election clerk has faced death threats, poll workers are frustrated and morale in the office is low, Rhodes-Conway said, as the latest push sows fresh doubts among voters about unsubstantiated claims of massive voter fraud. She said Gableman's current investigation is just "one piece of the picture."
"If you couple that with all of the lawsuits, all of the elections-related complaints, the legislation that has been introduced and in some cases passed to make it more difficult to vote, the dialogue and the conversations in the public sphere and the press, that's what worries me," she said. "All of that adds up to setting the stage for state legislatures around the country to overturn the will of the people in democratically conducted elections."
Wisconsin Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson has gone the furthest. He says a provision in the U.S. Constitution allowing state legislatures to set the time and place of federal elections means Republicans who control the statehouse could simply take over federal races without the approval of Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.
The Legislature has done the work of setting the time and place of federal elections by passing laws that were signed by a governor, said Kevin Kennedy, who ran elections in the state for more than three decades. To undo those, Kennedy says lawmakers would have to get approval from the governor again.
"It really is part of the total strategy for 2022 and 2024, which is to say you can't trust the election process unless we are in charge," he said. "It's ironic that they are going to take that position, because most of what they are doing is being very, very critical. They are not offering constructive alternatives."
Republicans controlled the governor's office and Legislature when they created the Wisconsin Elections Commission in 2016, after controversies prompted them to shut down a different accountability board, run by Kennedy.
But in the wake of Trump's roughly 21,000-vote loss in the state, Republicans have scrutinized decisions made by the evenly-split commission during the pandemic, including a ruling last March to not send special voting deputies into nursing homes to assist residents.
No one criticized the bipartisan vote at the time, which commissioners argued was necessary as nursing homes closed their doors to most visitors. But the Racine County Sheriff said in an October press conference that investigators in his office have now heard examples of staff taking advantage of residents in one care facility as they tried to vote.
He said the commission violated the law by not allowing deputies in, calling for felony charges against five of its six members. No prosecutors in the state have moved on his request.
"It's not up to me to decide what's legal or what's not," said Robert Spindell, a Republican appointee on the elections commission who has supported calls to dig into the 2020 election. "It's really irrelevant whether there was any fraud or not, the point here is that there are many people who do not have faith in the elections, or that it was handled fairly, and we need to have these questions answered."
The Wisconsin Legislature ordered an investigation from the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau, which found no new evidence of voter fraud, but recommended dozens of changes to the elections commission.
Republicans in the assembly and Gableman are also zeroing in on a shared $6.3 million election administration grant from the Mark Zuckerberg-funded Center for Tech and Civic Life, which was split among the state's five largest cities last year. The grants were given to help administer COVID-safe elections, but Republicans allege the money gave too much information to outside groups over how elections were run.
Election leaders and city officials have said they're proud of the actions they took in extraordinary circumstances to make sure people were able to safely exercise their democratic right to vote during the pandemic. Everything was done out in the open, including in more than 40 hearings held by the elections commission last year, Jacobs said.
"It's really a rejection of government as something that can be trusted and function appropriately," she said. "And the misguided believe that what we feel is more important than what is real."
Part of the issue for Republicans is that they're stuck, said Rep. Mark Spreitzer, the Democratic lead on the assembly's election committee. Recounts and the courts in Wisconsin upheld the results of the 2020 election, and the governor vetoed Republican-backed election law changes.
Assembly Republicans have held sporadic hearings on the election over the last year and Speaker Robin Vos brought in Gableman, a retired Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice, to conduct his investigation. Vos's office did not return a request for comment.
"In almost all cases, it is clear at least to me that there's not going to be any finding of actual illegality and wrongdoing under current laws," Spreitzer said.
Gableman's inquiry has faced criticism from the start as a partisan effort. The investigation is staffed by several people with connections to Trump and past efforts to overturn the election results. Gableman's office did not respond to a request for comment.
Republican state Sen. Kathleen Bernier, a former elections clerk who leads the chamber's elections committee, wants the investigation to wrap up its work.
She criticized Gableman's meetings as "jazzing up" the base, but she's worried it will have the opposite effect, depressing turnout from Republicans who don't trust the systems her colleagues have been attacking.
"This is a charade, what's going on with this constant drumbeat of all the massive voter fraud," she said at a press conference this month. "This country was based on states' rights and individual liberty, and we are being played from the top down."