The head of a Republican investigation into Wisconsin’s 2020 election has backed off an initial request for subpoenas and interviews with mayors and city clerks in five cities, Madison’s city attorney said Thursday.
During the past week, retired state Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman, who was hired by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, to lead the investigation, requested a swath of election-related documents from city officials in Milwaukee, Madison, Green Bay, Racine and Kenosha — representing hundreds of thousands of documents. Investigators also demanded interviews with the mayors and city clerks in those cities later this month.
However, Madison City Attorney Michael Haas said he was notified Thursday by officials with the investigation that the subpoenas and interview requests have been canceled and the request now only pertains to records the city already has produced in response to public records requests. Haas said the same information was conveyed to officials in all five cities.
“Of course all of this could have been provided without a subpoena in the first place,” Haas said. “We do appreciate that they have recognized that the initial request would have been impossible to fulfill by (Oct.) 15.”
Haas said he was not sure if Gableman’s change of course also applies to a subpoena issued last week to the Wisconsin Elections Commission. Haas said investigation officials plan to follow up Friday with an email regarding the new request and they have reserved the right to request interviews or additional documents in the future.
Mayors in Wisconsin don’t play any role in administering elections, so it’s unclear what Gableman was hoping to learn from the latest round of subpoenas. In an interview Tuesday with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Gableman said, “Most people, myself included, do not have a comprehensive understanding, or even any understanding, of how elections work.”
Democrats have decried the Gableman investigation as a farce and an attempt to undermine public confidence in elections. A recount and court decisions have affirmed that President Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump in Wisconsin by almost 21,000 votes. Only four voters out of roughly 3 million who cast ballots have been charged with fraud.
Regardless, Trump still refuses to concede defeat and has pressured GOP legislators to investigate election fraud. Vos hired Gableman in June at a cost of nearly $680,000 in taxpayer money for the one-party investigation.
Gableman has said he planned to look into advice the bipartisan state Elections Commission gave to clerks, and donations the Facebook-funded nonprofit Center for Tech and Civic Life gave to Wisconsin communities, to help run the 2020 election.
In a video last month, Gableman said he’s not trying to overturn the election results, even though he told Trump supporters in November, without evidence, that he thought the election had been stolen.
Gableman has not disclosed who is working for him. An email sent to clerks asking for records as part of Gableman’s investigation came from a Gmail account under the name “John Delta” and included a document created by a former Trump administration official.
Gableman, Vos and other city officials could not immediately be reached Thursday night.
The subpoenas to the cities’ clerks and the state Elections Commission call for them to turn over “all documents contained in your files and/or in your custody, possession, or control pertaining to the Election.”
Madison City Clerk Maribeth Witzel-Behl on Thursday provided one example of the strain Gableman’s subpoena would put on her office.
She said that whenever someone registers to vote online, the Elections Commission will send her an email, with a duplicate to her office, notifying her of the registration and including the voter’s date of birth, driver’s license number, and last four digits of the voter’s Social Security number.
Similar emails come in when someone requests an absentee ballot online, she said. All the emails combined are enough to overwhelm her office’s email system, she said.
Just prior to last year’s presidential election, her office had as many as 2,000 emails coming in per day from people registering to vote online, she said, and while she didn’t have a grand total for how many registration and ballot-request emails her office received in 2020, her “conservative estimate” was about 100,000.
“If that is the case, our information technology professionals say it would take more than 10 days just to save these e-mail messages as pdf files,” she said. “And then we would need to redact the personally identifiable information.”
Reached Thursday evening after the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel first reported Gableman’s rescission, Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway said she had not personally received notification that the subpoena had been rescinded, but if that were the case she called it “good news.”
“I hope this means he understands our Wisconsin clerks and poll workers did a great job running not only the November 2020 election but all elections in Wisconsin,” she said.
Rhodes-Conway on Thursday emailed a campaign fundraising appeal referencing Gableman’s investigation. In the email, Rhodes-Conway said she is proud of how the city’s elections are run while criticizing Gableman’s request to “appear behind closed doors at a strip mall in Brookfield,” in reference to the location where clerks and mayors had been summoned for an interview.
“But we all know they aren’t really interested in the process of our elections — they just didn’t like the outcome,” Rhodes-Conway said. “And they especially don’t like that Madison has consistently terrific turn out, providing the margin of victory in statewide elections.”
State Journal reporters Chris Rickert and Dean Mosiman contributed to this report.