MADISON, Wisconsin (AP) – Harry Wait was so determined to show that Wisconsin’s electoral system is vulnerable to fraud that he logged into the state website, requested an absentee ballot in the name of the speaker of the state assembly and had it handed over to him. Then he ran to a sheriff to tell him he had committed fraud.
Now Wait faces the possibility of criminal charges in a strange new chapter in a chaotic, seemingly endless battle over election administration in the main battlefield state.
The battle began after Joe Biden won the state in 2020, beating former President Donald Trump by nearly 21,000 votes. Trump has refused to accept the loss, claiming the election was marred by fraud. Multiple reviews and court decisions have confirmed Biden’s victory, but Trump supporters have spent the months since promoting his baseless claims that Biden somehow stole the election.
Republican State Rep. Tim Ramthun has centered its gubernatorial campaign around decertifying Biden’s victory in the state. GOP lawmakers passed sweeping changes to election law earlier this year, but Democratic chief executive Tony Evers vetoed the package. The conservative-controlled state Supreme Court in July prohibited ballot boxes for absences.
That’s not all. A Republican sheriff last year called for election officials to be indicted for refusing to send special assistants to nursing homes to help residents in their absence at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. And under pressure from Trump, Assembly President Robin Vos launched a investigation into voter fraud last summer that has cost taxpayers more than $1 million but has yielded nothing so far.
It hasn’t been nearly enough for the hardliners of the state GOP. Nine Republican lawmakers, including Vos and state Senate majority leader Devin LeMahieu, face primary challengers who say the incumbents haven’t done enough to increase election security.
Enter Harry Wait. He is the chairman of the Racine-based group HOT Government, which committed fraud in the 2020 election. He told The Associated Press that he visited the state’s election website and claimed to have ordered 10 ballots in other people’s names. including the mayor of Fox and Racine, Cory Mason, and had it delivered to his own address.
He quickly contacted Racine County Sheriff Christopher Schmaling and told him all about it. He said he had proved that the state system is vulnerable to fraud.
Wait wasn’t alone. Adrianne Melby, of Burlington, told the AP she had decided to see if she could have an absentee ballot sent to another address. She had a friend visit the website, order a ballot in Melby’s name, and have it mailed to the friend’s address. Melby told Schmaling what she had done too.
Wisconsin law prohibits people from making false statements to obtain a ballot and from impersonating a voter. Penalties can include fines of up to $10,000 and three and a half years in prison. Wait and Melby told the AP that Schmaling promised he would not arrest them or press charges.
“I asked him if he wanted to arrest me and he said no,” Wait said. “The conversation was quite short. He was glad I opened this up and revealed it.”
Melby, for her part, said that Schmaling told her that neither she nor her boyfriend had committed a crime because Melby allowed her boyfriend to get a ballot in her name.
Schmaling is a Republican activist who campaigned for Trump. He called on prosecutors to sue five of the six members of the state election commission on their decision in March 2020 — when COVID-19 was rampant and before vaccines were available — not to send special voting delegates to Wisconsin nursing homes to help residents vote. No one was ultimately prosecuted, and Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul called Schmaling’s demands an “outrageous publicity stunt.”
Schmaling did not respond to a message left at his office on Friday. Racine County District Attorney Patricia Hanson also did not respond to a message asking for comment.
Vos, whose district includes Racine County, said what Wait did amounts to voter fraud.
“His actions are sad,” Vos said. “If election integrity means anything, it means we all have to follow the law — Republicans and Democrats alike.”
The state’s election commission, made up of three Democrats and three Republicans, held an emergency meeting Thursday night to discuss Wait’s and Melby’s activities.
Administrator Meagan Wolfe told commissioners that the website is no more vulnerable to fraud than a traditional postal request for an absentee ballot. She also stressed that the state’s voter registration database would flag anyone who attempted to vote using someone else’s ballot. The commissioners eventually voted to discuss the referral to prosecutors at a future meeting, perhaps as early as next week.
“People who think it’s cute to commit a crime to undermine elections, that must be stopped and it must be stopped now. And waiting implies that there is something appropriate about it,” Democratic Commissioner Ann Jacobs said during the meeting.
The committee also decided to send postcards to about 4,000 voters who requested that their absentee ballots for the 2022 election be sent to addresses that do not belong to them, to verify their intent. Spokesperson Riley Vetterkind said this is not an indication of fraud, as voters often ask for ballots to be sent to vacation homes or other places they stay.
Wait told the AP he knew what he was doing was a crime, but he was doing it “for the good of the republic.”
Melby said if what she was doing was illegal, prosecutors should go after all vote-gatherers in the 2020 election. Melby, who was pressed for details about who was harvesting the ballots, told a reporter to order “2,000 mules.” , a pro-Trump documentary falsely alleging widespread voter fraud.
University of Wisconsin-La Crosse political scientist Anthony Chergosky said Wait and Melby’s actions were “extremely irresponsible.”
They also showed the magnitude of Trump’s influence over the Republican Party and endless efforts to undo the 2020 election, he said.
“It’s a logical consequence of the rhetoric used by President Trump and others in his party,” Chergosky said. “The practical purpose of this is to sow mistrust in the results of the 2020 election. The Republican Party is not ready to turn the page.”