Wisconsin Elections Commission appointee Joseph Czarnezki
Joseph Czarnezki, who was appointed to the Wisconsin Elections Commission in May by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, is seen in a Sept. 7, 2023, photo. (Andy Manis for Wisconsin Watch)
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Republicans who control the Wisconsin Senate’s elections committee retaliated Tuesday against one of the three Democratic elections commissioners who tried to block them from voting to fire the state’s nonpartisan top elections official earlier this year.

The committee voted along party lines against confirming Democratic Commissioner Joseph Czarnezki, who was appointed to the Wisconsin Elections Commission in May by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers. His nomination heads next to a vote by the full GOP-controlled Senate.

The ongoing controversy over the elections commission stems from persistent lies about the 2020 election and creates instability ahead of the 2024 presidential race for the state’s more than 1,800 local clerks who actually run elections.

The bipartisan elections commission, which consists of three Democrats and three Republicans, deadlocked in June on a vote to reappoint nonpartisan Administrator Meagan Wolfe. Czarnezki and the two other Democrats abstained from voting in the hopes of blocking the nomination from proceeding to the Republican-controlled state Senate, where GOP leaders had promised to oust Wolfe. Nominations from the commission require a four-vote majority.

Democrats argued a recent Supreme Court decision used by Republicans to maintain control of key policy boards allowed Wolfe to stay in office indefinitely as a holdover. Senate Republicans proceeded anyway, voting last month to fire her. Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul challenged their actions in a lawsuit that accused the Senate of acting outside its legal authority, and Wolfe has remained head of the elections agency while the legal battle plays out.

In a public hearing before their vote on Tuesday, Republicans grilled Czarnezki about his decision to abstain from the commission’s vote in June. The committee’s chair, Republican Sen. Dan Knodl, accused Czarnezki of a “failure to act” and a “dereliction of duty.”

“Obviously, that’s the only thing they were concerned with,” Czarnezki said after the hearing. “I’m not sure what comes next. We’ll see what happens. The vote is what the vote is, and we’ll take it from here.”

Czarnezki has a long history in state and local government, including two years as a state representative and 10 years as a state senator in the 1980s and ’90s. He has also served as Milwaukee County Clerk and held numerous positions in Milwaukee city government.

Wolfe and elections commissioners have been targeted by conspiracy theorists who falsely claim they were part of a plot to tip the 2020 presidential election in favor of President Joe Biden. Biden defeated Donald Trump in 2020 by nearly 21,000 votes in Wisconsin, an outcome that has withstood two partial recounts, a nonpartisan audit, a conservative law firm’s review, and multiple state and federal lawsuits.

Democratic Sen. Mark Spreitzer, a member of the elections committee, accused Republicans of bowing to pressure from elections skeptics on Tuesday.

“They made their choice,” he said. “They sided with conspiracy theorists.”

During Evers’ first term as governor, Senate Republicans did not act on many of his appointments to state boards, and appointees from former Republican Gov. Scott Walker refused to step down when their terms expired. Since Evers’ reelection last year, GOP lawmakers have continued to stymie the confirmation process and signaled their intent to reject some of his picks.

“These people are volunteering the time and effort to do good things for the state of Wisconsin. And it’s really kind of stupid politics,” Evers said in a statement posted Tuesday on social media. “… None of those people—none of those people—could be considered radical, crazy people. In fact, if they keep throwing people off, I think I’ll start bringing crazy, radical people there. Let them try.”

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Harm Venhuizen is a state government reporter with The Associated Press in Madison, Wisconsin, primarily covering elections and voting rights. Prior to this, Venhuizen interned at Military Times. He holds a bachelor’s degree in political science and philosophy from Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he served as editor-in-chief of Chimes, the student paper. During his time at Chimes, he earned recognition for his investigative coverage of controversial personnel decisions, sexual assault and university employment policies against same-sex marriage. Venhuizen grew up on a small farm in rural Wisconsin, and spent a summer working as a wildfire firefighter with the U.S. Forest Service.