They held down a Black teen who had tried to shoplift. He died from asphyxia. Why was no one ever charged?

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When the clerk at VJ’s Food Mart confronted Corey Stingley, the 16-year-old handed over his backpack. Inside were six hidden bottles of Smirnoff Ice, worth $12, and the clerk began pulling them out one by one.

Stingley watched, then pivoted and quickly moved toward the door, empty-handed. But there would be no escape for the unarmed teen in the light blue hoodie, ProPublica reported.

Three customers, together weighing 550 pounds, wrestled the 135-pound teen to the floor of the West Allis, Wisconsin, store. They pinned him in a seated position, “his body compressed downward,” according to a police account. One of the men put Stingley in a chokehold, witnesses would later tell investigators.

“Get up, you punk!” that man, a former Marine, reportedly told Stingley when an officer from the police department finally arrived. But the teen didn’t move. He was foaming at the mouth, and his pants and shoes were soaked in urine.

He’d suffered a traumatic brain injury from a loss of oxygen and never regained consciousness. His parents took him off life support two weeks later. The medical examiner ruled Stingley’s death a homicide following his restraint in “a violent struggle with multiple individuals.”

That was more than 10 years ago.

None of the men, all of whom were white, were criminally charged in the incident that killed Stingley, a Black youth. Police arrested Mario Laumann, the man seen holding Stingley in an apparent chokehold, shortly after the incident in December 2012. But the local district attorney declined to prosecute him or the other two men, arguing they were unaware of the harm they were causing.

When a second police review led to a reexamination of the case in 2017, another prosecutor sat on it for more than three years, until a judge demanded a decision. Again, there were no charges.

Prosecutors move on, but fathers don’t. Refusing to accept that the case had been handled justly, Corey Stingley’s dad, Craig, last year convinced a judge to assign a third district attorney to look at what had happened to his son.

That prosecutor, Ismael Ozanne of Dane County, is scheduled to report back to the court on Friday. He could announce whether charges are warranted.

The case has parallels to a recent deadly subway incident in New York City. Both involve chokeholds administered by former Marines on Black males who had not initiated any violence. But unlike in Wisconsin, New York authorities acted within two weeks to file a second-degree manslaughter charge in the case.

While the New York subway incident grabbed national headlines, Corey Stingley’s death — which happened the same day as the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut — did not gain much notice outside of southeast Wisconsin.

Years later, Craig Stingley tapped an obscure statute dating back to Wisconsin’s frontier days to convince the system to take a fresh look at his son’s death. The law states that if a district attorney refuses to issue a criminal complaint or is unavailable to do so, a private citizen can petition a judge to take up the matter. Today, it’s loosely referred to as a “John Doe” petition, though in this instance there was no doubt who restrained Stingley’s son: Laumann, who has since died, along with two other store patrons named Jesse R. Cole and Robert W. Beringer.

No one is alleging that the men set out to kill Corey Stingley. His father is asking the prosecutor to consider a charge of reckless homicide or even a lesser offense for using extreme force to detain his son.

“He wasn’t trying to harm anyone. He was trying to leave that store,” said Craig Stingley, who thought his son made a youthful mistake. “I believe he was scared.”

“You Guys Killed That Kid”

VJ’s Food Mart is a typical small convenience store, packed with chips, candy, soda, beer, cigarettes and liquor. On Sunday mornings it offers a special deal on hot ham and rolls, a local tradition for an after-church meal. To combat theft, the store is equipped with security cameras.

On Dec. 14, 2012, Thomas Ripley and Anthony Orcholski stopped by the store for beer and snacks. Only a few steps in, they saw that three men had someone firmly pinned on the ground.

Security video shows Ripley and Orcholski pausing next to the pile of people and watching intently. In statements to police they both said they saw Laumann lying on the ground with his arms around Stingley’s neck in a “chokehold.” Beringer had grabbed Stingley's hair, they said; the third man, Cole, had his hands on Stingley’s back.

Ripley told police the teen was not moving and appeared to be limp.

“I don’t think he could breathe,” Ripley would later testify during a special review of the case to determine if there should be charges.

Orcholski told a detective that he was concerned about the teen on the ground and may even have instructed the men to let Stingley go.

A decade later, Orcholski is still bothered by what he saw. “I’m upset,” he told ProPublica. “Three men thought they were going to be heroes that day because a 16-year-old boy was shoplifting. There could have been numerous different ways to restrain him other than choking him to death.”

He added, “It’s common sense: When you squeeze somebody that hard for that long, they’re not going to be alive after it.”

The security video is grainy, and much of the confrontation took place out of view of the cameras.

Authorities had a third witness, though. Troubled by what he’d seen, store customer Michael Farrell felt compelled to go to the West Allis police station that evening and give a statement.

“I felt bad. I’m a dad,” he explained, court records show.

Farrell told police he could see through the store’s glass door that a man with a “crazed look on his face” had someone in a chokehold, very near the entrance. The guy was “squeezing the hell out of this kid and never let up,” he said. Farrell picked Laumann out of a photo lineup. (Farrell and another witness, Ripley, couldn’t be reached for comment for this story.)

Corey Stingley and his dad lived just a couple of blocks from the store, making them one of the few Black families in a predominantly white neighborhood and city on the border of Milwaukee. Comments from the three men who held Stingley down imply that they saw him as an outsider.

Ripley told police that Beringer, 54, held Stingley by the hair and shook the teen’s head a couple of times. “You don’t do that,” he said Beringer scolded Stingley. “We’re all friends and neighbors around here.”

With Stingley subdued, the store clerk held a phone to Beringer’s head so he could talk to a police dispatcher. “We have the perp, three of us have the perp on the ground holding him for you,” Beringer said, according to a transcript of the 911 call.

Police estimated that the men held Stingley down for six to 10 minutes. When Stingley stopped struggling, Cole later told police, “I thought he was faking it.”

He added: “I didn’t know if he was just, you know, playing limp to try and get real strong and pull a quick one, you know.”

When an officer arrived, she handcuffed Stingley with Beringer’s assistance but then realized that he wasn’t breathing and called for help.

Beringer walked outside the market, according to Farrell, only to be confronted by another bystander who said, “You guys killed that kid.”

“We didn’t kill anyone,” Beringer responded.

At nearby Froedtert Hospital, doctors concluded Stingley’s airway had been blocked while he was restrained.

He had petechial hemorrhages — tiny red dots that appear as the result of broken blood vessels — to his eyes, cheeks and mouth. A deputy medical examiner attributed this pattern to “pressure applied to the neck.” There also was a bruise at the front of Stingley’s neck, she testified.

She noted that his asphyxia also could be linked to compression of the chest.

Doctors put Stingley in a medically induced coma, attached him to a ventilator and inserted a feeding tube. As the situation became increasingly hopeless, his family spent Christmas at his bedside. Four days later, his parents made the agonizing decision to take him off life support.

“Mario Did Have a Temper”

In the New York subway case earlier this month, it took less than two weeks for the Manhattan district attorney to charge Daniel Penny, a former Marine, with second-degree manslaughter for the choking death of Jordan Neely, a homeless man who had yelled at other subway passengers. A prosecutor emphasized that Penny continued to choke Neely even after he stopped moving.

Penny’s lawyers have defended his actions by saying he was protecting himself and other passengers. Laumann, in contrast, never claimed Corey Stingley was a danger. But he did dispute that he put his arm around the teen’s throat.

Interviewed by police that night, Laumann, then 56, recalled “just leaning on him.”

Pressed by a detective, Laumann appeared less confident, saying, “A headlock is when you got your arms locked, right? And I didn’t have him locked.” He added: “I had my arm around like this, yeah, but I didn’t have him in a headlock. Unless maybe I did, maybe I — I don’t, no, I, I don’t remember that, no.”

His account conflicted with that of witnesses. And Laumann’s older sibling Michael, also a former Marine, isn’t so sure, either. Chokeholds are a part of basic combat skills, he said, used to restrain a person and take them down.

“That’s the first thing they teach you, not only in boot camp but also in subsequent infantry training. It becomes an automatic restraint, to save your own life,” Michael said. “I’m not saying that Mario did that. Because I don’t know the situation. But all I’m saying is that when you’re in the Marine Corps you’re taught how to save your own life. And to save the lives of your brotherhood. Sometimes it becomes, say, an automatic response.”

Michael Laumann said he and Mario — who died last year at age 65 — seldom talked, and when they did, the store incident never came up.

Mario Laumann, who worked in construction after leaving the Marines, lived about two miles from the store. His family had been dealing with a variety of crises. His wife was battling cancer. She had been arrested four years earlier for driving under influence of prescription medications. She died in 2013.

And, by the time of the encounter with Stingley, Laumann’s youngest son, Nickolas, was serving time in prison for sexual assault of a 15-year-old girl, intimidation of a victim and theft.

Writing online while in prison, Nickolas said his father would “scream at me” for drug use and “whoop my ass.” The police report about Stingley’s death notes that Laumann had been arrested twice for battery, but charges in both cases had been dismissed.

“Mario did have a temper,” another brother, Mennas Laumann, said recently.

The three men who held Stingley down didn’t know each other. Beringer, who lived next door to the food mart, told police he only recognized Laumann as “a neighborhood guy.”

Like Laumann, Beringer had had previous encounters with police. In 1996, Beringer pulled a gun on a Pakistani-born man and told him he hated “fucking Iranians,” according to a police sergeant’s sworn criminal complaint. Beringer pleaded guilty to misdemeanor gun charges and was jailed briefly then put on probation. A judge ordered him to complete a course in violence counseling or anger management and continue with mental health treatment, court records show.

Beringer, who no longer lives in West Allis, declined to talk to ProPublica. He came to the door of his apartment building and when asked to discuss Stingley’s death said, “No, no, see you later,” and closed the door.

The third man to wrestle Stingley to the ground, Cole, was a 25-year-old electrician who lived about a mile from the store. He’d gone there to get cigarettes. The prior year he had pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct, a misdemeanor, for carrying a Glock handgun in the center console of his car and a magazine with 11 hollow-point bullets in the glove box. Cole didn’t respond to ProPublica’s attempts for comment.

In the immediate aftermath of the incident, all three men cooperated with police.

Cole said that as he and the others tried to halt Stingley’s attempt to flee, the teen took a swing at him and landed a punch. He ended up with a black eye.

Asked by police why he restrained the teen, Laumann replied: “Because he’s a thief.”

“He Was My Buddy”

Several days after the struggle, West Allis police arrested Laumann and processed him for second-degree reckless injury. It was up to Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm to decide whether to prosecute him and the other men.

Chisholm eventually arranged for a judicial proceeding where sworn testimony could be heard. There, the three men invoked their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination in declining to answer questions. The original witnesses recounted seeing Stingley grabbed around the throat.

Though Farrell said he couldn’t recall telling police that Laumann was “squeezing the hell out of” Stingley, he didn’t back away from his original description of a chokehold.

Months went by with no word on charges. But Craig Stingley, a facilities engineer, couldn’t just sit and wait. He rallied support from politicians in the community and tried to keep the pressure on Chisholm.

Stingley brought state Sen. Lena Taylor to meetings with the prosecutor to discuss the case. They came away discouraged. Taylor got the impression that the case was challenging for prosecutors on many levels. The video was not sharp, for one thing. Taylor also believed that race relations in Milwaukee County fed Chisholm’s concern that a jury might not convict anyone in the case.

At one meeting, Taylor said, she questioned what would have happened if the people involved had been of different races. “They wouldn’t let a group of Black guys do that to a young white guy, without any consequences,” she said.

More than a year after the incident, in January 2014, Chisholm announced he would not bring charges, on the grounds that the men did not intend to injure or kill Stingley and didn’t realize there was a risk to his life or health. “It is clear that the purpose of restraining Corey Stingley was to hold him for police,” Chisholm wrote in a five-page summary of his investigation.

“None of the actors were trained in the proper application of restraint,” he added

Corey’s mother, Alicia Stingley, was stunned. “It’s just mind-boggling to me, just the decision that was made that it was more so because he didn’t think he could win a case or didn’t think what they did was on purpose,” she said. “There were no repercussions for a grown man taking a young child’s life — by choking him.”

For Craig Stingley, it’s inconceivable the men did not know his son was in distress during the prolonged time they held him down. Applied properly, a chokehold “can render an aggressor unconscious in as little as eight to thirteen seconds,” according to a 2015 Marine Corps instructor guide.

Chisholm is still the district attorney. Through an assistant, he declined comment, citing the new review. Among the questions sent by ProPublica to Chisholm was whether he investigated Laumann’s training in restraints as a Marine.

Chisholm’s decision sparked media coverage and community protests. To Craig Stingley, Corey was more than a symbol, he was a cherished son.

“He was my buddy,” Stingley said, describing how he and Corey would watch sports together. A skilled athlete, Corey Stingley was a running back on his high school football team and a member of the diving team. He took advanced placement classes in school and made the National Honor Society at school, his father said. He also worked part-time at an Arby’s.

His social media accounts include references to girls and partying. It also catalogs his love of Batman, the Green Bay Packers and Christmas and shows him gently mocking his friends and family.

“My dad just got texting and he’s experimenting with winky faces,” he wrote in 2012, ending with “#ohlord.”

Craig Stingley and his ex-wife filed a wrongful death suit in 2015 against the three men and the convenience store, which led to a settlement. Records show that Laumann’s homeowners insurance paid $300,000, as did Cole’s. (Beringer didn’t have homeowner’s insurance.) There was no admission of wrongdoing by the defendants. In court filings the three men said their actions were legal and justified, citing self-defense and their need to respond to “an emergency.”

A good portion of the proceeds from the suit went to pay for hospital and funeral costs and lawyer fees, Stingley said.

In the civil suit, an expert forensic pathologist hired by the Stingley family’s lawyer concluded the teen died because his chest was compressed and he was strangled.

“Once his airway became completely obstructed,” Dr. Jeffrey Jentzen of the University of Michigan wrote, “Corey would have experienced severe air hunger, conscious fear, suffering and panic with an impending sense of his own death for a period of 30 seconds to approximately one minute until he was rendered into a fully unconscious state.”

Craig Stingley still obsessed about what had happened and how to revive a criminal case. He relived his son’s death over and over, watching the surveillance video of his last moments frame by frame, looking for something new.

Using a movie maker app on his computer, he slowed the video down and grabbed individual frames. He concluded that Cole initially had his son in a headlock, but that Laumann too had an arm around his neck before bringing him to the ground. That conflicted with Laumann’s statement to police.

Stingley took his findings to the West Allis police, where a detective agreed they’d missed this detail. The department wrote a supplemental report for Chisholm, who asked a judge to appoint a special prosecutor for another look.

Racine District Attorney Patricia Hanson got the case in October 2017. But what followed was more waiting.

Stingley said he called Hanson’s office routinely in the years that followed, but she never met with him. Reached via email recently, Hanson declined to comment.

The case “has not even been assigned a referral or case number after three years in that office,” state Rep. Evan Goyke complained in a December 2020 letter to Milwaukee County Circuit Court Chief Judge Mary Triggiano. “This is unacceptable,” he wrote.

In later correspondence, Triggiano noted Hanson had refused to say when her decision would be forthcoming because in the midst of the pandemic, she had a lot of cases needing attention.

In March 2021, Hanson told the court in a one-page memo that she had reviewed Chisholm’s file and agreed with his earlier decision: “I do not find that criminal charges are appropriate at this time.”

“My Son Got His Humanity Back”

John Doe proceedings allowing citizens to directly ask a court to consider criminal charges date back to 1839, when Wisconsin was still a territory, according to an account in state supreme court records. The law is used infrequently, legal experts said, and rarely successfully.

Petitions have been filed by prisoners, by activists alleging animal cruelty in research experiments and by citizens claiming police misconduct. The efforts typically fail, ProPublica found in reviewing court dockets, news accounts and appellate rulings. In Milwaukee County, Wisconsin’s most populous, there were only 19 such cases in 2020, dockets show, including Stingley’s. None succeeded.

Other states have similar methods of giving citizens a voice, but none are exactly like Wisconsin’s. According to the National Crime Victim Law Institute, six states — Kansas, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota and Oklahoma — allow private citizens to gather signatures to petition a judge to convene a grand jury to investigate an alleged crime. In Pennsylvania, individuals can file a criminal complaint with the district attorney; if rejected, they can appeal to the court to ask it to order the district attorney to prosecute.

Milwaukee attorney Scott W. Hansen, who has served as special prosecutor in a John Doe case, is critical of the Wisconsin process. He said it allows citizens to present a one-sided, skewed version of facts to a judge, “without benefit of cross-examination or adverse witnesses.”

The law, however, does state that the citizen’s petition must present facts “that raise a reasonable belief” a crime was committed.

Former state Supreme Court Justice Janine Geske described the John Doe petition as a check and balance on prosecutors by citizens. “If people believe a crime has been committed, and you’ve got prosecutors not living up to their responsibilities, and you think somebody ought to be held accountable, it’s a way to have some judicial review,” she said.

Stingley has known all along that the odds were against him, so turning to a longshot petition didn’t daunt him. Writing to Chief Judge Triggiano in late 2020, he alleged “dereliction and breach of legal duty” by the Milwaukee and Racine county district attorneys to conduct thorough criminal investigations into his son’s death.

Triggiano assigned the case to Judge Milton Childs. He formally appointed Ozanne, the first Black district attorney in Wisconsin, as special prosecutor last July. Ozanne’s inquiry has included reviews of court transcripts and interviews with West Allis police and others.

Craig Stingley was pleased that Ozanne and his staff met with him for several hours to listen to his concerns and to hear about his son.

“When I left that meeting,” Stingley said, “my son got his humanity back.”

Election deniers failed to hand Wisconsin to Trump but have paved the way for future GOP success

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Ever since claims of election fraud arose in 2020, Wisconsin has seen its share of quixotic attempts to taint the presidential results.

A group of phony electors tried to claim the state’s electoral votes for Donald Trump. Wisconsin’s top lawmaker launched a yearlong inquiry led by a lawyer spewing election fraud theories. And its courts heard numerous suits challenging the integrity of the 2020 election and the people administering it.

All those efforts failed, sometimes spectacularly.

But on a more fundamental level, the election deniers succeeded. They helped change the way Election Day will look in 2022 for crucial midterm elections in Wisconsin — and they are creating an even more favorable climate for Trump and Republicans in 2024.

This summer, the conservative majority on the Wisconsin Supreme Court banned most drop boxes for ballots, which had provided another quick and convenient method of voting during the pandemic, rather than relying on the mail. Until a federal judge intervened, the ruling also meant that people with disabilities could not have help delivering their ballots to their municipal clerks.

More recently, in Waukesha County, a judge sided with the Republican Party in a ruling that barred local clerks from fixing even minor errors or omissions — such as a missing ZIP code — on absentee ballot envelopes. The clerks could contact the voter or return the ballot to be corrected. In a state already known for limiting voter access, this was another example of a push toward more controls.

And the Wisconsin Assembly and the Senate, both dominated by Republicans, have passed a raft of bills that would tighten voting laws. Each was vetoed by Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat. But Evers is in a close race for reelection against Republican Tim Michels, who has said that “on day one” he will call a special session of the Legislature to “fix the election mess.”

Philip Rocco, associate professor of political science at Marquette University in Milwaukee, describes a dynamic he has seen across the country playing out on a large scale in Wisconsin. An onslaught of attacks on the voting process, he said, produces “an atmosphere of procedural chaos going into Election Day.”

“Just in general, it’s created a dangerous environment for elections to occur in.”

Republicans, who often benefit from lower turnout, frame the battles around issues of law, while Democrats argue that the fight is over voting rights. Neither side sees any benefit in giving in.

The seemingly daily news of legal machinations, legislative committee hearings, proposed laws or official investigations of Wisconsin’s election system have left many voters worried about what to expect when they next try to cast a ballot and unsure of whether their vote will count.

A swing state with 10 electoral votes and a history of razor-thin margins, Wisconsin will once again be a key prize in the 2024 presidential race.

Just how important the state is became clear in August, when the Republican National Committee announced that it will hold its 2024 convention in Milwaukee, a typically overlooked, Democratic-led city. The convention will saturate the state’s largest media market, reaching the conservative-leaning suburbs and the quiet towns and farms beyond.

But first comes November’s midterm election, with a chance to consolidate Republican power in the state and shape oversight of coming elections. Both ends of the political spectrum are keenly aware of the stakes.

“What can happen in 2024 is largely going to be determined by what happens this November,” said Wisconsin attorney Jeffrey Mandell, president of a progressive firm dedicated to protecting voting rights.

Endless Legal Battles

Nine attorneys, a parade of dark suits and briefcases, descended on a Waukesha County courtroom in southeast Wisconsin in September. Once again, the extreme minutiae of Wisconsin election law was being litigated.

The question before them: how to deal with absentee ballot envelopes that arrive with only partial addresses of witnesses?

Until then, municipal clerks had been able to simply fill in the information. Now, the Republican Party of Waukesha County argued that was unlawful and wanted to prohibit clerks from doing so. For some voters, that could mean having their ballots returned and figuring out how to fix them in time to have their vote counted.

A lawyer for the GOP-controlled Legislature favored a prohibition. Lawyers for government regulators, Democrats and the League of Women Voters argued against it. Ultimately, the GOP side prevailed.

In his ruling, Circuit Judge Michael J. Aprahamian added his voice to the doubts about absentee voting in Wisconsin and about the oversight provided by the bipartisan Wisconsin Elections Commission, which has seen its every move scrutinized since Trump and his allies started questioning the 2020 results in Wisconsin.

Aprahamian excoriated the commission, saying that “it is little wonder that proponents from all corners of the political spectrum are critical, cynical and suspicious of how elections are managed and overseen.”

As court scenes like these play out elsewhere in Wisconsin, a healthy slice of the litigation can be traced to one man: Erick Kaardal, a Minnesota lawyer and special counsel to the anti-abortion Thomas More Society, a nonprofit law firm.

Despite some high-profile setbacks in Wisconsin, Kaardal told ProPublica he plans to keep scrutinizing the fine points of Wisconsin election law, a subject that takes up at least 122 pages in state statute.

His ongoing targets include the Wisconsin Elections Commission, which interprets laws and gives guidance to municipal clerks around the state; the Electronic Registration Information Center, a voter roll management consortium; and the Center for Election Innovation & Research, a progressive nonprofit that seeks to improve turnout.

“We’ll be litigating with the WEC and ERIC and CEIR for years to come,” Kaardal said.

Kaardal’s persistence is not appreciated by everyone. A federal judge admonished him for “political grandstanding” and filing bad-faith litigation against then-Vice President Mike Pence in December 2020 to prevent the counting of electoral votes. And in May, a judge in Madison said it was “ridiculous” for Kaardal to label pandemic-related grants to election offices as bribes.

In defending his tactics, Kaardal cited his years of legal experience and investigative abilities. He said he merely wants to hold government accountable and make elections fair.

Among Kaardal’s most passionate causes is his ongoing effort to document election fraud at nursing homes. During the pandemic, Kaardal alleges, an unknown number of cognitively impaired people ruled incompetent to vote under court-ordered guardianships somehow voted, perhaps with illegal assistance. He believes the voter rolls are not being updated to accurately reflect the court orders.

Kaardal brought lawsuits against 13 probate administrators across Wisconsin to force the release of confidential documents revealing the names of individuals under guardianship who have had their right to vote stripped by the court. His petition was denied in one case, but the others are ongoing.

Dane County Clerk of Court Carlo Esqueda worries that Kaardal’s quest is giving people the wrong impression. He points out that a person under guardianship can still vote. In some instances, that right is taken away because of extreme cognitive issues.

“Talk radio is saying everybody under guardianship should not be able to vote. That’s simply not true,” he said.

Election clerks, too, cite disinformation as they face mounting pressure over how they handle absentee ballots.

Celestine Jeffreys, the clerk in Green Bay, was forced to defend her integrity when a local resident represented by Kaardal filed a formal complaint with the Wisconsin Elections Commission this year, accusing her of “ballot harvesting” in the spring 2022 municipal elections by accepting multiple absentee ballots from an individual voter. The complaint is still pending.

Matt Roeser, the resident who filed the complaint, told ProPublica that the heavy reliance on absentee voting during the pandemic “opened up a door we’ve never had opened before. It created a lot of suspicion.”

Jeffreys said in a court filing that she had the discretion at the time to accept multiple ballots if they involved someone delivering their own ballot and a ballot for a disabled person.

Her legal brief called the complaint “another attempt by Attorney Kaardal to court scandal where there is none — intentionally undermining public confidence in legitimately-run elections in the process.”

Energized Activists

Wisconsin resident Harry Wait drew national attention in July when he announced that he’d gone on a state website and arranged for absentee ballots in the names of the Racine mayor, the state Assembly speaker and several others to be sent to his home.

The site requires only that voters enter their name and date of birth, and Wait claimed it had insufficient safeguards to prevent fraud.

The antic angered the Wisconsin Elections Commission, which held that it was a serious breach meant to undermine the state’s election system. Authorities charged Wait with election fraud, a misdemeanor, and misappropriation of ID information, a felony.

Notwithstanding the charges, Wait was treated like a hero a week later at a meeting of the right-leaning group he leads inside a Racine dive bar.

Wait formed H.O.T. Government, which stands for honest, open, transparent, four years ago over perceived government misconduct in Racine. It’s now focused on rooting out what it sees as widespread election fraud throughout Wisconsin and is taking special interest in absentee ballots. The group even briefly considered a plan to steal leftover drop boxes in southeast Wisconsin to ensure they couldn’t be used after the state Supreme Court ruling.

Wait has made it clear he’s no fan of the Wisconsin Elections Commission. “I’m going to make a declaration today that WEC is our enemy,” he told the crowd inside the bar.

He was proud how, in his view, he had exposed the flaws in the state government’s MyVote website, set up to help Wisconsinites find their polling place, register to vote or order an absentee ballot. The website, he said, “really needs to be shut down.”

Wait said in an interview that he plans to defend his action in court on the basis that, in his view, the MyVote system is “not a legal channel to order a ballot. It’s a rogue system.”

The administrator of the Wisconsin Elections Commission, Meagan Wolfe, has defended the online system. It “requires a person to provide the same information or more information than he or she would have to provide if the person made the ballot request through traditional mail,” she said at a commission meeting.

Still, the commission agreed to a new safeguard: When it gets a request to send an absentee ballot to a new address, it will notify the voter via postcard. The commission also asked clerks to be on the lookout for unusual requests.

At a preliminary hearing on his case, in September, Wait was represented by Michael Gableman, a leading figure among Wisconsin election deniers.

A former state Supreme Court justice, Gableman was special counsel for the Wisconsin Assembly, tasked with investigating the 2020 election. While spending more than $1 million in taxpayer money, he lent oxygen to election-fraud theories — including Kaardal’s accusations about nursing home irregularities — but couldn’t prove any. Attempts to reach Gableman for comment for this story were unsuccessful.

Even after being dismissed from that role by the Assembly speaker, Gableman has continued to exert influence within the state Republican Party to stoke the anger of citizens. Among hard-right activists, Gableman’s view of Wisconsin as a hotbed of election fraud is now taken for granted, as is the belief that voting options should be restricted, not opened up.

“I want it back to in-person, one day,” said Bruce L. Boll, a volunteer with We the People Waukesha, one of numerous groups supporting tighter controls. “Voting should not be a whim. It should be something you plan for and you do. Like your wedding day.”

Responding to this new atmosphere of distrust, the Wisconsin Elections Commission has proposed creating an Office of Inspector General to help it investigate the growing number of complaints and allegations of impropriety.

Chaos and Controversy

The chaos and controversy around voting rules has caught some Wisconsinites off guard. The drop-box ruling was especially disconcerting to people with disabilities and their relatives.

Before the August primary, Eugene Wojciechowski, of West Allis, went to City Hall to pay his water bill and drop off his ballot and his wife’s at the clerk’s office. A staffer asked him for ID and then told him he could not deliver his wife’s ballot. Not even spouses of the disabled could do so at the time, thanks to the state Supreme Court decision.

“I said: ‘What do you mean? She’s in a wheelchair,’” Wojciechowski recalled. He noted that the ballots were “all sealed and witnessed and everything.”

The voting constraints were “stupid,” he said, but ultimately he decided he would just mail his wife’s ballot for her, even though it was unclear at the time whether that was permitted.

He has filed an official complaint with the Wisconsin Elections Commission and weeks later remains exasperated.

“I mean, what the hell is going on in this city? I’ve lived here all my life,” Wojciechowski said.

“They’re stopping people from voting, that’s all it is.”

The state Supreme Court decision came in response to a suit brought by a conservative group, the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty. An attorney for the group, Rick Esenberg, argued that regulators had issued unlawful guidance allowing ballots to be delivered on behalf of others, including potentially “paid activists, paid canvassers who go around and collect ballots and place them in a mailbox.” Those allegations echoed a widely circulated conspiracy theory about people, labeled mules, delivering heaps of fraudulent ballots.

Esenberg conceded in his oral arguments that he had no evidence of that type of activity in Wisconsin.

Four people with disabilities sued in federal court, including Martha Chambers, of Milwaukee, who was left paralyzed from the neck down after being thrown from a horse 27 years ago.

“Here they are making things more difficult for me, and my life is difficult enough,” she said.

A federal judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and ordered the state elections commission to tell local clerks that voters with disabilities must be allowed to receive help from someone of their choosing to return their absentee ballots. The clerks do not have to confirm that the voter is disabled or ask the emissary for ID.

Still, it’s not at all certain that the ruling will be followed uniformly.

The state has approximately 1,850 local clerks who administer elections in cities, towns and villages. Even before the federal ruling, practices were wildly inconsistent, said Barbara Beckert, director of external advocacy for Disability Rights Wisconsin.

“There is continuing confusion in Wisconsin as voting practices and policies continue to change in response to litigation as well as action by the Legislature,” Beckert said.

Political observers say there’s increased trepidation among all kinds of voters over whether their ballot will count and who will be watching at the polls.

“People are afraid,” said Milwaukee native Bruce Colburn, a union activist and lead organizer of Souls to the Polls, a traditional get-out-the-vote drive in Black communities. “Are they going to do something wrong? Then you have all these lawyers and people making complaints in the court system for nothing. And it makes it more difficult. It scares people. If they get something wrong or they don’t do it exactly right, something’s going to happen to them.”

Jeffreys, the clerk in Green Bay, described poll watchers on primary day this year as “aggressive and interfering.” Rather than being cordial and unobtrusive, she said, some observers were repeatedly questioning voting officials and disrupting the process.

“That, I think, is a really big change with elections in Wisconsin. There’s just a lot more of a gaze, and the gaze is not always friendly and cooperative.”

Unlike poll workers, who carry out official duties and must be local residents, poll watchers can come from anywhere. They are not required to undergo training.

“Observers are a very important part of the process,” Jeffreys said. “They lend transparency; they help educate people. They themselves become educated. But sometimes observers have anointed themselves as the people who will uncover problems. And oftentimes observers are not equipped with the information in order to do that.”

The result, she said, can be baseless allegations.

Pointing Toward 2024

If Republicans in Wisconsin want to find a way around the Democratic governor, Evers, and his veto pen, they have two choices.

They can unseat him in November or bulk up their legislative advantage to what is called a supermajority. Achieving supermajorities in both the Assembly and the Senate, which would make bills veto-proof, is considered the longer shot. Winning the governor’s race is not.

Michels, the Republican nominee, is the owner of a construction company and has never held public office. He was endorsed by Trump in the primary.

Michels has embraced the idea that the 2020 election was not run fairly, even though a state recount showed Biden won and multiple courts agreed. Asked if the 2020 election was stolen, Michels told the “Regular Joe Show” on the radio in May: “Maybe, right. We know there was certainly a lot of bad stuff that happened. There were certainly illegal legal ballots. How many? I don’t know if Justice Gableman knows. I don’t know if anybody knows. We got to make sure. I will make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

A Michels victory would set the stage for reconsideration of a range of restrictive voting laws that were vetoed by Evers.

Among the bills passed by Republicans and blocked by Evers were proposals that would require the state to use federal databases to check citizenship status; remove voters from the rolls based on information submitted for jury selection; make it harder to request an absentee ballot; and classify it a felony to incorrectly attest that a person is “indefinitely confined” so they can vote absentee (a provision widely used during the pandemic).

Wisconsin already is a place that researchers have identified as difficult for voters to navigate. The Cost of Voting Index, a Northern Illinois University project that studies each state, lists it near the bottom, at 47th, because of a strict voter ID law, limits on early voting and proof of residency requirements that affect registration drives.

“Over the last several election cycles, other states have adopted policies that remove barriers to voting,” one of the researchers, Michael J. Pomante II, now with the election protection group States United Action, said in an email.

But Wisconsin, he added, “has continued to pass and implement laws that create barriers to casting a ballot.”

In 2024, all these factors — from who is able to vote to who runs the executive branch and who runs the Legislature — will play a role in determining which presidential candidate gets Wisconsin’s electoral votes.

The governor and the Wisconsin Elections Commission are part of the state’s certification process, with the secretary of state making it official by affixing the state seal. And the state Supreme Court stands ready to rule on election law disputes.

The Nov. 8 midterm election will determine which party holds the office of governor and secretary of state when voting occurs in 2024. Michels has proposed a “full reorganization” of the Wisconsin Elections Commission if he is elected.

He hasn’t explained what that would look like, other than to say in a primary debate that he envisioned replacing it with a board made up of appointees named by each of the state’s congressional districts. Wisconsin now has eight seats in the U.S. House, five held by Republicans and three by Democrats.

Evers, by contrast, backs the commission in its current form. He noted its origins in the state’s Legislature seven years ago.

“Republicans created this system, and it works,” he said in a statement released to ProPublica. “Our last election was fair and secure, as was proven by a recount, our law enforcement agencies, and the courts.”

Republicans turn against the League of Women Voters

For decades, the League of Women Voters played a vital but largely practical role in American politics: tending to the information needs of voters by hosting debates and conducting candidate surveys. While it wouldn’t endorse specific politicians, it quietly supported progressive causes.

The group was known for clipboards, not confrontation; for being respected, not reviled.

But those quiet days are now over, a casualty of the volatile political climate of the last few years and the league’s goal of being relevant to a new generation.

In 2018, the league’s CEO was arrested, along with hundreds of other protesters, for crowding a Senate office building to demand lawmakers reject Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, a conservative accused of sexual harassment.

Two years later, the league dissolved its chapter in Nevada after the state president penned an op-ed in July 2020 accusing the Democrats of hypocrisy for opposing gerrymandering in red states while “harassing” the league in Nevada over its activism on the issue.

And two days after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, the league’s board of directors called then-President Donald Trump a “tyrannical despot” and blamed him for inciting the violence and for threatening democracy. The league demanded his removal from office “via any legal means.”

As a result, the league is calling attention to itself and drawing criticism in ways that are extraordinary for the once-staid group. Republicans are increasingly pushing back hard against the league, casting it as a collection of angry leftists rather than friendly do-gooders.

And with more right-leaning candidates snubbing the league, voters are less likely to hear directly from those candidates in unscripted and unfiltered forums where their views can receive greater visibility and scrutiny. That pushback sidelines the league at a time when misinformation has become a significant force in elections at every level.

“The League of Women Voters, while that sounds like a nice organization, they don’t do a lot of nice work,” Catalina Lauf, a Republican candidate for Congress in Illinois, said in a video posted in May on Instagram, explaining her reasoning for refusing to participate in a league-sponsored debate.

The league, she claimed, “peddles Marxist ideology” and is “anti-American.” In an interview with ProPublica, Lauf cited the league’s support for the rights of transgender student athletes as one reason she is suspicous of the group. She also claimed the league has endorsed the defunding of police departments, though that is inaccurate. The league has, however, taken stands in favor of sweeping police reforms that would address brutality and racial profiling.

“They need to switch their brand fast,” Lauf said. “Because their hyperpartisanship is turning off a lot of women who just want common sense.”

Conservative candidates for school board and county supervisor in Wisconsin have fired similar broadsides when declining to participate in league debates. And in Pennsylvania this year, only 30% of Republican candidates completed the league’s informational guide for the primaries, compared with 70% of Democrats, according to the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania. The guide gives voters the candidates’ unedited answers to questions about their qualifications, priorities and stances on certain issues.

Elsewhere, Republican-led policies make it harder for groups like the league to add people to the voting rolls. In Kansas, because of a change in law, the league no longer registers voters — a task that has long been central to its mission.

Under its bylaws, the league does not endorse candidates. And by policy, board members can’t run for or hold any partisan elected office. Nor can they chair a political campaign, or fundraise or actively work for any candidate for a partisan office.

Just as its founders were crusaders, however, the league itself is outspoken on a multitude of issues, including supporting universal health care, abortion rights, affordable child care and clean water. The league has pushed for gun control measures since 1990. And it has been a strong voice nationally for campaign finance reform. In some communities, the league has even weighed in on zoning decisions.

Its viewpoints have long branded the league as a progressive organization. “They’re very fine, but they tend to be a little bit liberal,” the late Sen. Bob Dole, a Republican from Kansas, said of the league during a televised 1976 vice presidential debate in Houston.

Those liberal leanings have been harder to ignore in recent years, forcing the league to defend itself against claims of partisanship.

After its CEO was arrested at the Kavanaugh protest in 2018, the league admitted in a statement that openly opposing a Supreme Court nominee was “an extraordinary step for the League,” but said it believed the action was warranted.

“This situation is too important to sit silently while the independence of our judiciary is threatened.” CEO Virginia Kase Solomón closed her legal case by paying a $50 fine.

The league’s chief communications officer, Sarah Courtney, told ProPublica in a written statement: “Organizations always need to change with the times and current events in order to stay relevant.”

She noted: “The League has been a force in American democracy for more than a century, and we expect to be around in another hundred years. We haven’t gotten this far by doing things the same way we did them in 1920.”

UCLA professor Richard L. Hasen, an election law expert, said that while it’s clear that the league has been more aggressive in taking on controversial issues, it’s the group’s core mission that puts it at odds with some politicians. Supporting voting rights, he said, can be seen as an attack on the Republican Party, which has pushed for laws that make it more difficult to register and to vote. (Republicans say they are doing so to protect the integrity of elections, though there is no evidence of any widespread voter fraud.)

“It’s hard to be seen as neutral when you have the political parties dividing over questions like voting rights,” said Hasen, who directs the law school’s Safeguarding Democracy Project, which is aimed at researching election integrity.

To Hasen, the league’s evolution is notable. “Generally, there’s kind of a caricature of the league as kind of a group of old women coming together for tea,” he said. “Whereas, I think the league has become much more of a powerhouse in terms of advocating for strong voting rights.”

“Dare to Fight”

It took women more than 70 years of agitating, organizing and marching to convince men to give them the right to vote in 1920. Once the 19th Amendment was ratified, these activist women were wary of the political parties, which wanted their votes but not necessarily their input.

“Women in the parties must be more independent than men,” the league’s founder, suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt, wrote, according to papers kept by the Library of Congress. “They must dare to fight for what they believe is right.”

Catt worried that some women would come to believe that all virtue or all wisdom was held by the party, paralyzing their judgment.

The league, which was formed the same year women nationwide were finally granted the right to vote, dedicated itself not to political parties, or the men running them, but to specific causes. One cause helped forge its identity: educating league members and other voters at election time.

Its first political agenda was long, numbering 69 items, and was called a “kettle of eels” by the league’s own president. Many of those items, such as child welfare and access to quality education, have remained league priorities for decades — as has its commitment to voter education. In 2018 and 2020, the league and ProPublica worked together to produce a guide sharing basic, nonpartisan information to help citizens choose among candidates and obtain ballots.

For nearly a century, the league itself seemed to change little, but by 2018 it found itself at a crossroads.

Leadership hired consultants and began to look for ways to reach disillusioned voters, combat misinformation in elections and effectively respond to society’s escalating racial issues, including the disenfranchisement of people of color.

“Although it remains a trusted household name, many stakeholders cannot describe clearly the purpose of the organization and are unclear about its relevance,” a league consultant wrote in a 2018 report. “The membership is much older and whiter than the population at large, and League membership has steadily declined by almost a third over the past few decades.”

Membership plunged from 72,657 in 1994 to 53,284 in 2017, according to the report. (It has since climbed back up to over 70,000, the league said.)

The organization also faced greater competition. Dozens of new nonprofits had emerged to protect voting rights, including Indivisible, NextGen America, Color of Change and Hip Hop Caucus.

According to the consultant’s report, league members long knew that its homogenous membership limited its effectiveness and its appeal to a broader audience. So, in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement, the league issued a formal mea culpa.

In an August 2018 blog post, the league’s president and its CEO admitted that “our organization was not welcoming to women of color through most of our existence” and vowed to build “a stronger, more inclusive democracy.” Many of the early suffragists were also abolitionists, but after the Civil War, they were divided over whether to support the 15th Amendment, which at the time gave Black men, but not women, the right to vote. The fissure persisted for decades and had lasting consequences for the league.

“Even during the Civil Rights movement, the League was not as present as we should have been,” the post said. “While activists risked life and limb to register black voters in the South, the League’s work and our leaders were late in joining to help protect all voters at the polls.”

In recent years, the league has been more visible in advocating for racial equity and fairness. It particularly focused on reducing barriers to voting in marginalized communities. The league has fought, for instance, against reductions in the number of polling places or voting hours in minority communities.

After a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd by kneeling on the Black man’s neck in May 2020, the league announced the next month that it would strongly push for reforms in the justice system, including changes aimed at preventing excessive force and brutality by law enforcement.

“The League of Women Voters of Minneapolis is not your grandmother’s League,” Anita Newhouse, the city chapter’s league president at the time, wrote in the MinnPost, a nonprofit news outlet, in August 2020. “We are still the nonpartisan education and advocacy group committed to empowering voters, but with a commitment to identifying racism and dismantling policies that suppress non-white votes.”

Advocates, Progressives or Democrats?

Even within the league, not everyone feels the group applies its principles evenly.

For five years, Sondra Cosgrove, a College of Southern Nevada history professor specializing in multicultural issues, ran the league in Nevada as it took on issues such as gerrymandering.

But she’s no longer part of the organization, and she wonders whether that’s because she was not always clearly in the Democrats’ corner.

In 2019, the league launched a 50-state Fair Maps strategy to combat racial and political gerrymandering. As league president in Nevada, Cosgrove began pushing for a ballot initiative that would create an independent commission to draw legislative district boundaries. The move would have taken power away from the Democrats, who controlled the statehouse and the governor’s office.

Cosgrove soon found the league’s ballot initiative challenged unsuccessfully in court by a Black activist and, later, by the Democratic governor, who did not allow petition signatures to be collected electronically during the pandemic.

About a week after her July 2020 op-ed accusing the Democrats of hypocrisy and “harassing” the league in Nevada, officials from the national league office emailed Cosgrove, instructing her to “stop making public statements online and in the media accusing the Democratic party of attacking the League of Women Voters.” The officials clarified that their position would be no different if Cosgrove was criticizing Republicans.

Cosgrove, however, said she told the league’s national office she wouldn’t seek its input on public statements. The league dissolved the state chapter not long afterward, in December 2020. Cosgrove and others quit the national organization and now are with another voting group.

“There was always the feeling the league was run by the Democrats,” said former Nevada league Treasurer Ann Marie Smith. “We tried to fight that to a large degree, but in my opinion the national league has gone down that road much further than they should have.”

Executives in the league’s national organization told ProPublica that the decision to shut down the state chapter was not an easy one and was made “after multiple attempts to resolve policy violations” that went beyond just the clash with the governor.

“Ultimately, the board had no choice but to disband the Nevada league to protect the entire organization,” Courtney, the league spokesperson, said. “Our northern Nevada local league has remained active with a dedicated group of members who are committed to rebuilding the league’s presence in the state.”

The league does sometimes call out Democrats.

In late July of this year, the league released an update on its Fair Maps initiative, saying it had organized public hearings in 24 states, used apps and software to test draw fairer maps in 38 states, and joined 11 state lawsuits and six federal cases challenging maps in California, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah and Wisconsin. Two of those states feature Democrats in control of the state legislative chambers and the governor’s office. Five of them have Republican control. In the rest, control is split.

But, going forward, the league may find it more difficult to do the work it’s always done.

The league chapter in Mountain Lakes, New Jersey, for instance, has faced what one member there called sustained opposition in recent years.

Complaints from a parent, who is also a Republican on the borough council, derailed the league’s annual Running and Winning high school program in 2019, which was to feature female speakers from both parties as a way to encourage young women to pursue careers in politics. The parent argued that the league had a political agenda and was excluding high school boys and male politicians.

Ultimately, the school district canceled the event.

Political tensions only got worse in the months that followed. When the newly created Laker Republican Club emailed an unsolicited mass membership appeal throughout the community, a league board member replied with an email questioning the morals, courage and patriotism of Trump and his supporters. The league defended her, saying she was speaking as a private citizen and she did not reference her role with the league.

Local Republicans running for borough council responded by refusing to participate in league debates in 2020. Former Mountain Lakes Mayor Blair Schleicher Wilson wrote in a local publication that she had been a member of the league for 25 years but now supported the candidates who shunned the league.

Wilson, a Republican, wrote that the local league chapter “has sadly lost their way.” In an interview with ProPublica, she added that she loved being involved with the league but believes it should stick only to voter advocacy. “I always thought their focus should be more on voter services,” she said. “That’s a perfect place for them.”

The chapter lost about 30 members because of the community tensions and is trying to rebuild, said former Mountain Lakes league President Mary Alosio-Joelsson, now the organization’s events leader.

She believes conservatives in Mountain Lakes have changed, not the league. “Many have moved so far to the right that anybody who is walking down the middle of the road looks like they’re on the left,” she said.

The shift in the country’s political climate also has far-reaching implications for what the league considers some of its most essential work. In Kansas, the organization halted registration work a year ago after a measure enacted by a Republican-led legislature made it a felony to engage “in conduct that would cause another person to believe a person ... is an election official.”

The league worried its volunteers could be prosecuted if someone mistakenly believed them to be election officials while registering voters. Douglas County District Attorney Suzanne Valdez, a Democrat, agreed there were problems with the law and said she wouldn’t pursue cases of alleged violations.

“This law criminalizes essential efforts by trusted nonpartisan groups like the League of Women Voters to engage Kansans on participation in accessible, accountable and fair elections,” she said in a statement.

But Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, a Republican, quickly retorted that his office would, indeed, prosecute alleged violators.

The league asked the Kansas Court of Appeals for an injunction that would temporarily prevent the law from being enforced, but the group lost and is now requesting a review from the state Supreme Court.

Despite the setback, Jacqueline Lightcap, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Kansas, said the league intends to continue to work to defend democracy and empower voters. But she said the mission has become harder. Even seeking dialogue with legislators on the ramifications of the registration law is difficult.

“We are not getting much traction,” she said.

A Republican tried to introduce a commonsense gun law -- then the gun lobby got involved

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

Cole Wist was a Republican state House member in Colorado with an A grade from the NRA. Then, in 2018, he supported a red flag law, sponsoring a bill to allow guns to be taken away — temporarily — from people who pose an immediate threat to themselves or others.

Wist lost his seat in the legislature that year in the face of an intense backlash from Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, a gun rights organization in Colorado that boasts it accepts “no compromise” as it battles “the gun grabbers.” The group campaigned against him, distributing flyers and referring to him on social media as “Cole the Mole.”

Wist, an attorney, doesn’t regret trying to enact what he considered a measured response to an epidemic of gun violence in the United States. He acted after a mentally ill man in his Denver suburb killed a sheriff’s deputy. The bill didn’t pass until after Wist was out of office and his successor, Tom Sullivan, shepherded it through. Sullivan is a Democrat who lost his son in the Aurora theater massacre.

Wist left the Republican Party this year, citing the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection as the reason, and is now unaffiliated with any political party. Days after the slaughter of 19 children and 2 adults in an elementary school in Texas, ProPublica talked to Wist about the challenges ahead as proponents once again work to enact gun reforms.

Colorado is one of 19 states, including Illinois, Florida and Indiana, that have red flag laws, sometimes called extreme risk protection orders. Texas does not. After the Robb Elementary School murders on Tuesday, a bipartisan coalition in the U.S. Senate agreed to negotiate over possible anti-violence measures, including expanding red flag laws.

In Colorado, a spokesperson for the Rocky Mountain Gun Owners called Wist “a sellout” on Friday and said the organization had no choice but to work against him. “At the end of the day, my goal is to hold politicians accountable regardless of whether they’re a Republican or a Democrat,” said RMGO’s Executive Director Taylor Rhodes.

Rhodes called the assault on the elementary school a “massive terrorist attack” but said gun control is not the answer.

“We protect everything in our nation that’s valuable with guns. We protect our banks with guns, courthouses … our homes. We protect them with guns.” The group’s logo includes an image of a firearm that resembles an assault rifle.

This interview with Wist has been edited for length and clarity.

Tell me about why you introduced the legislation in Colorado.

Every time we have an incident like this, people tend to go into their camps. We’ve got some folks who say we should ban certain kinds of guns or expand universal background checks or any other number of policy proposals to try to eliminate guns from society. On the other hand, you have folks who say no, these are mental health issues, this is an indication of a larger mental health crisis in the country. But you know, I don’t really hear a whole lot of policy solutions from those folks. So in an effort to try to pair concerns about mental health and the combination of mental health crisis with access to firearms and weapons, I started investigating extreme risk protection orders and how they’ve been passed in other states. And one of the first states in the country to do this was Indiana. And I don’t think you’d really think that Indiana is a hard left state, by any means. … And ultimately, I decided to sponsor legislation relating to extreme risk protection orders.

When you served in the state legislature, the Republicans controlled the state Senate and Democrats had the House. What was the makeup of your district?

I represented a district that at that time was predominantly Republican. It had historically elected Republican legislators, but it was a suburban district becoming more purple. And, you know, look, when you’re elected to represent a district in the legislature, you’re not just elected by the people that voted for you, you’re elected to represent everyone in the district, and that includes unaffiliated and Democratic voters.

Who opposed you when you ran for reelection in 2018?

So there’s a group called the Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, a very active gun rights organization. They targeted me or targeted my race for campaign activity and actively worked against me. … They put flyers on people’s doors, including my own door, and used their resources to campaign against me.

Are the Rocky Mountain Gun Owners similar to the National Rifle Association?

I think they characterize themselves as being the no-compromise gun rights organization. So I would characterize them as certainly more aggressive on gun rights issues than the NRA, and the NRA is the more well-known organization, the one with more resources. But in Colorado, Rocky Mountain Gun Owners is the gun rights group that seems to have the most sway. They’ve been successful in recalling a couple of legislators here.

Did it seem like they sacrificed your seat to send a message to other lawmakers to stay in line?

I guess that’s a fair interpretation, that you either stay in line and vote the party line on this issue, or they will remove you. And that’s what they did. I mean, there were other factors in play in 2018. That was also the midterm election of Donald Trump’s first term in office or his only term in office. … So there were more issues in play than gun policy. But it was certainly a group that worked against my reelection and didn’t help. … It might have been enough to suppress turnout on the Republican side for me.

What was the reaction from the GOP leadership to your sponsorship of the red flag bill?

I was the assistant minority leader in the state House at that point. There was an effort to strip me of that leadership post. That effort failed. I think there’s some reluctance in Republican circles here to take on groups like the Rocky Mountain Gun Owners for fear of getting primaried, for fear of having them work against you. And I suppose people may look at my experience as being something that deters them from even having conversations. I introduced a bill that was very controversial. In those circles, even being open to conversations about gun policy or gun safety legislation creates risk for folks in Republican circles here. So, if your objective is to stay in office for a long time and continue to get reelected … you don’t cross that line.

In the aftermath of Uvalde, what does your experience suggest about the likelihood of our politicians enacting some measures to prevent future atrocities?

I see some of the same signs happening again, in the aftermath of this event, where everyone sort of retreats to the corners. And some people are calling for banning certain kinds of guns and changing the purchase age for certain kinds of guns. If you try to ban AR-15s, I think that’s a policy solution that some people think is something we should do. I don’t agree with that. We’ve got millions of guns already in the possession of gun owners across the country. How much of an impact are you going to have if you ban certain kinds of guns at this point? I think a better discussion is to talk about why people commit these kinds of violent acts with guns and other weapons. … And so I think red flag laws and legislation that focuses on trying to reduce risk and talking about why these kinds of events happen is the most productive conversation for us to have. Let’s give law enforcement and families tools that they can use.

But one of the things that’s lost in this conversation is that — I’ll talk specifically about Colorado — we have one of the highest suicide rates in the country. We also have one of the highest percentages of gun ownership in the country, and the highest percentage of suicides here are committed by guns. So when folks are going through a severe mental crisis, yes, there’s a risk that they might go commit a homicide, but there’s probably a greater risk that they’re going to hurt themselves. So I think there’s this way of characterizing red flag laws as confiscating guns and trying to hurt someone’s constitutional rights. But instead, I think it’s something that’s being used to help protect that person, to prevent them from harming themselves and prevent them from harming family members.

Can you describe the toll this experience took on you and your family?

I received threats as a result of going through that process. And that was very stressful for my family. I don’t miss that part of public life. And, you know, social media and other things have made being in office very difficult. And folks can say just about anything and do say just about anything. So I can choose to do a couple of things. As a private citizen, I can kind of retreat from this and not talk about it, or try to do what I can to raise awareness and just try to encourage folks to come together. I don’t know that you’re ever going to change everyone’s minds. But we don’t solve problems unless we talk to each other and not talk past each other. And every time we have an incident like what happened in Texas this week, there’s sort of the initial, let’s talk, let’s come together, let’s talk about this. But I’m just amazed at how quickly everyone just sort of retreats to the same old political position. I hope this time is different.

Billionaire-backed group enlists Trump supporters to hunt for voter fraud using discredited techniques

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At a wedding hall in rural northwest Wisconsin, an evangelist hollered a question to an eager crowd of conferencegoers: “Who thinks Wisconsin can be saved?”

He was answered with enthusiastic whistles and cheers. The truth, he said, would be revealed. “We need transparency!”

The subject: the nation’s election systems. The preacher was among a group of conservative speakers, including politicians, data gurus and former military officers, who theorized on the mechanics of voter fraud in general — and specifically distrust in the voter rolls, the official lists of eligible voters.

“Voter rolls are very, very important to the process,” Florida software and database engineer Jeff O’Donnell told the gathering of 300 in late January in Chippewa Falls, deeming the rolls “the ground zero” of what he called Democratic plots to steal elections. The only way former President Donald Trump could have lost his reelection campaign in 2020, O’Donnell said in an interview, was if voter rolls had been inflated with people who shouldn’t have been able to cast ballots.

Ever since Trump failed to convince the world that he lost the 2020 election because of fraud, like-minded people across the country have been taking up the same rallying cry, revisiting that vote with an eye toward what will happen in 2022.

Now, a new group is stepping into a more conspicuous role in that world by providing easily accessible tools for people in Wisconsin, other Midwest battleground states and, eventually, the entire country to forge ahead with a quest to prove election irregularities.

Calling its work unprecedented, the Voter Reference Foundation is analyzing state voter rolls in search of discrepancies between the number of ballots cast and the number of voters credited by the rolls as having participated in the Nov. 3, 2020 election.

The foundation, led by a former Trump campaign official and founded less than a year ago, has dismissed objections from election officials that its methodology is flawed and its actions may be illegal, ProPublica found. But with its inquiries and insinuations, VoteRef, as it is known, has added to the volume in the echo chamber.

Its instrument is the voter rolls, released line by line, for all to see.

In early August, the foundation published on its website the names, birthdates, addresses and voting histories for 2 million Nevada voters, information that is normally public but only available on request, for a fee. It claimed to have found a significant discrepancy between the number of voters and the number of ballots cast, despite being warned by state election officials that its findings were “fundamentally incorrect.”

In the months since, VoteRef has reported similar discrepancies in rolls posted for 17 other states, including the 2020 election battlegrounds of Michigan, Georgia, Ohio and Wisconsin. It intends to post the rolls of all 50 states by year’s end.

“Voter File Transparency site adds Michigan; large discrepancy found,” read a headline on a Dec. 6 press release put out by the organization, which is led by Gina Swoboda, a high-ranking officer in the Republican Party of Arizona.

The project is still in its early stages, and the people at the Chippewa Falls conference did not mention VoteRef specifically.

Still, the VoteRef initiative is an important indication of how some influential and well-funded Republicans across the country plan to encourage crowdsourcing of voter rolls to find what they consider errors and anomalies, then dispute voter registrations of specific individuals. Visitors to the VoteRef site are able to scroll through data on more than 85 million people in a free, easy-to-use format. The VoteRef data includes personal identifying information of every voter and the years they voted, but not how they voted.

VoteRef’s methods have already led to pushback from state officials. The New Mexico Secretary of State believes posting data about individual voters online is not a permissible use under state law and has referred the matter to the state attorney general for criminal investigation.

And an attorney for the Pennsylvania Department of State notified VoteRef in January that state law prohibits publishing the voter rolls on the internet and asked that the data be removed. VoteRef complied.

ProPublica contacted election officials in a dozen of the states where VoteRef has examined voter rolls, and in every case the officials said that the methodology used to identify the discrepancies was flawed, the data incomplete or the math wrong. The officials, a mix of Democrats and Republicans, were in Colorado,Connecticut, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin.

“The accuracy and integrity of Michigan’s election has been confirmed by hundreds of audits, numerous courts and a GOP-led Oversight Committee analysis,” said Tracy Wimmer, director of media relations for Michigan’s secretary of state.

“This is simply another meritless example of election misinformation being disseminated to undermine well-founded faith in Michigan’s election system, and from an organization led by at least one former member of the Trump campaign,” Wimmer said.

VoteRef, records show, is an initiative of the conservative nonprofit group Restoration Action and its related political action committee, both led by Doug Truax, an Illinois insurance broker and podcaster who ran unsuccessfully in the state’s GOP primary for the U.S. Senate in 2014.

A ProPublica review found that VoteRef’s origins and funders are closely linked to a super PAC predominantly funded by billionaire Richard Uihlein, founder of the mammoth Wisconsin-based packaging supply company Uline. A descendant of one of the founders of the Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company, Uihlein is a major Trump supporter and a key player in Wisconsin and Illinois politics. Among his political donations: $800,000 in September 2020 to the Tea Party Patriots political action committee, a group that helped organize the Jan. 6 rally that led to the Capitol insurrection.

Uihlein and his wife, Elizabeth Uihlein, have contributed in excess of $30 million combined over two decades to mainly Republican candidates on the state and local level, particularly in Illinois and Wisconsin, according to OpenSecrets, a nonpartisan organization that tracks campaign donor information. The total includes money given to groups that advocate on behalf of candidates as well as direct contributions.

Voter rolls are public information, typically used by campaigns to identify potential supporters, target messages or persuade people to go to the polls. Journalists and some businesses also at times use the rolls for newsgathering or commercial purposes.

VoteRef has said its aim is to increase transparency in the elections process, echoing the language used to justify door-to-door address checks, painstaking ballot audits and other efforts that Trump supporters are continuing to employ to parse the 2020 election. To publicize the results of its analysis of ballot inconsistencies, it crafted press releases that then were parroted on sites that purport to be legitimate news outlets and were connected to a media network that received large sums of money from VoteRef.

“VoteRef is the beginning of a new era of American election transparency,” Swoboda, VoteRef’s executive director, said in its Nevada press release. “We have an absolute right to see everything behind the curtain.”

Until a few months before the 2020 election, Swoboda, a resident of Scottsdale, a Phoenix suburb, was a professional in Arizona’s election system, working as the campaign finance and lobbying supervisor in the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office.

Swoboda then served as Election Day operations director for the Trump campaign in Arizona, according to a sworn court affidavit she gave in Arizona in November 2020 as part of Trump’s legal challenge to election results there. She described how she took complaints from people who thought poll workers allowed defective ballots to be submitted, in what later became known as “SharpieGate.” (Votes made with a Sharpie do count, the state said.)

She and others associated with VoteRef declined to be interviewed for this story. But Swoboda did respond via email.

“In each of the states we’ve researched to date, the election data math simply doesn’t add up,” she wrote. “That requires reform. We seek to spur this reform through the sustained spotlighting of inaccuracies or wrongdoing.”

Flawed Methodology

As of late February, VoteRef showed 431,173 more ballots cast overall than people credited by voter rolls with having participated in the 2020 election.

To those unschooled in the mechanics of elections, VoteRef’s approach could seem reasonable: Compare the total number of ballots cast in the Nov. 3, 2020 election with the number of current voters on the rolls who have recorded histories of having participated in the vote.

For example, the VoteRef table for Nevada shows 8,952 more ballots cast than individuals credited with voting, based on histories obtained in February 2021.

“Theoretically, these numbers should match,” VoteRef claimed in an August press release.

But there are valid reasons the numbers do not match.

Nevada election officials explained it this way in a press release: “If ‘John Doe’ votes and has his ballot counted in Lander County, then moves to Mineral County, once he is registered in Mineral County, he will show no vote history because he has no vote history in Mineral County. The farther away from the election the data is acquired, the more it will have changed.”

In Connecticut, there were 1,839,714 ballots cast in 2020, according to VoteRef, but the group’s examination of voter histories in October, 2021, showed 1,802,458 people voting. VoteRef’s conclusion is that there was a discrepancy of 37,256 ballots.

But state election officials said that the registration database is “live,” and voting histories of those who moved out of state or died in the months after the election would have been removed from the rolls, accounting for the discrepancy.

“The list is not a static list,” said Connecticut Secretary of State Denise Merrill. “It changes all the time.”

In Michigan, where VoteRef found a difference of more than 74,000 votes, an elections official said that state’s qualified voter file also constantly changes as it's updated, making the data the foundation relied on in late May 2021 — more than six months after the election — out of date.

In a recent email to ProPublica, Swoboda conceded as much.

“It's up to election officials who run election offices to reconcile their data, not the Voter Reference Foundation, which merely publishes their information in a consumer-friendly format,” she said. “Of course, our election experts are well aware of the time lag between certification and data pulls — we posted the documents online for all to see!”

Federal law requires that election supervisors make reasonable efforts to update voter lists, but provides leeway in how states carry out the task. The law prohibits administrators from removing people for simply not voting in repeated elections, unless notices go unanswered and officials wait for two federal election cycles before putting the voters on an inactive list.

Counties haven’t always done a good job, however, in maintaining the voter rolls, leading some people to distrust the system. One of VoteRef’s key aims is to task ordinary people with the chore of finding anomalies.

Scrutinizing Voter Rolls and Neighbors

In announcing the launch of its website, the Voter Reference Foundation touted it as a “first of its kind” searchable tool for all 50 states “that will finally give American citizens a way to examine crucial voting records.”

“Citizens will be able to check their voting status, voting history, and those of their neighbors, friends and others. They will be able to ‘crowd-source’ any errors,” the press release stated.

The group’s backers have encouraged scrutiny outside of one’s own household.

“With you can find out who voted and who didn’t. Did your aunt who died 10 years ago ‘vote’ after she died? Did your ‘neighbor’ who moved to another state vote? Did 55 votes emerge from a five-unit apartment complex?” Jeffrey Carter, a partner in a venture capital group who earlier had appeared on Truax’s podcast, wrote on the newsletter site Substack in December.

Matt Batzel, whose organization American Majority recently highlighted VoteRef’s efforts in Wisconsin, said in an interview with ProPublica that VoteRef’s vision is for citizens to detect and then report potential problems with the voter rolls, such as people who are registered to vote at vacant lots or unusually high numbers of votes coming from nursing homes.

Election experts say the type of work being done by VoteRef risks leading to further misinformation or being weaponized by people trying to undermine the legitimacy of the past election or give the sense that voter fraud is a more encompassing problem than it’s proven to be. Or it could be used to harass or intimidate valid voters under the guise of challenging their legitimacy.

Even without any clear evidence of fraud during the 2020 election, the vast, decentralized election system still is drawing scrutiny from those who believe that the system can be easily manipulated. At the daylong voter integrity conference in Chippewa Falls, speakers invoked war imagery, spoke of coverups, and urged people to “expose the tactics” of the political left. The group — saluted via video by Trump acolyte and MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell — is seeking to put like-minded individuals in vote-certifying secretary of state offices nationwide.

The voter rolls have been targeted, too, by others in Wisconsin, including special counsel Michael J. Gableman, a former state Supreme Court justice and Trump supporter who the state’s Republican Assembly speaker appointed in June to conduct a review of Wisconsin’s administration of the 2020 election. On March 1, Gableman released a report blasting what he called “opaque, confusing, and often botched election processes.”

Gableman urged the Legislature to consider legal methods to enable citizens or civil rights groups to help maintain election databases.

“As it stands, there is no clear method for individuals with facial evidence of inaccurate voter rolls to enter state court and seek to fix that problem,” he wrote. He envisioned a system that “could even provide nominal rewards for successful voter roll challenges.”

While information about voters is available in most states, it comes at a cost and with limits on how it can be distributed to avoid having some private information be easily accessible.

In January, an official with the Pennsylvania Department of State wrote to Truax warning that it appeared that the Voter Reference Foundation had “unlawfully posted Pennsylvania-voter information on its website” and demanding that the organization “take immediate action” to remove the information.

Soon, Pennsylvania data disappeared from the website. Swoboda declined to answer questions about the matter. Attempts to reach Truax were unsuccessful.

In New Mexico, Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver also said the undertaking is not an allowable use of voter data. By state law, she said, the rolls can only be used for governmental or campaign purposes.

“Having voter registration data ‘blasted out across the internet’ violates state law limiting use of the voter rolls solely for campaign or government activities,” she said. In December, Toulouse Oliver’s office referred the matter to the state attorney general for investigation and possible prosecution.

Associates of the Voter Reference Foundation dismiss these privacy concerns.

"You are joking, right?” said Bill Wilson, chairman of the conservative-leaning Market Research Foundation of Fairfax, Virginia, which paid more than $11,000 to the state of Virginia in March 2021 for the voter roll data and shared it with the Voter Reference Foundation.

“Big tech, both political parties and big media have no interest or concern for privacy and have mountains of data on individuals that is shared and sold on an hourly basis. You called me at my home, after all.’’

Support in GOP Circles

Restoration Action/PAC describes itself on its website as an “effective dynamo against those trying to destroy our country.” It produces ads on behalf of state and national candidates, castigates Planned Parenthood, “biased liberal media” and “Big Tech” and advocates for fair elections.

Truax, the group’s head, frequently assumes the role of news anchor to host the First Right video podcast, interviewing far-right conservatives. In early June last year, he introduced his audience to VoteRef, telling them: “We helped create the organization, and we’ll have much more to say about it in the coming weeks.”

Richard Uihlein’s quiet role was essential. He’s been the primary funder of Restoration PAC since its inception in 2015, contributing at least $44 million, according to the data from OpenSecrets. In May 2021, Federal Election Commission records show, Uihlein donated $1.5 million to Restoration PAC. That same month, the Voter Reference Foundation was incorporated in Ohio.

Two weeks after the Uihlein donation, money started flowing from Restoration PAC to a media network that did some data procurement and analysis for VoteRef, with payments totalling more than $955,000 as of the end of 2021, the FEC records show.

The network, which includes Pipeline Media, is operated by Bradley Cameron, a Texas business strategist, state corporation records show. Brian Timpone is listed as a manager at Pipeline Media. He made headlines a decade ago after his firm, then called Journatic, came under fire for outsourcing hyperlocal news offshore using phony bylines.

In recent months, VoteRef has released press releases about its activities that have been turned into stories on sites owned by Metric Media, which Cameron leads, according to his online profile. The sites mimic legitimate news outlets but print press releases, shun bylines, do little to no original reporting and rely on automated data. “New website to publish which Arlington residents voted, did not vote in gubernatorial election,” read an Oct. 28 headline in the Central Nova News of Virginia, a Metric Media site.

Uihlein did not respond to calls or emails from ProPublica seeking comment. Cameron and Timpone also did not reply to messages seeking an interview.

Political figures with ties to Trump have been touting the efforts of VoteRef.

Among them: former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, an immigration hard-liner appointed by Trump to serve as acting head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Cuccinelli now heads the Election Transparency Initiative, a Virginia organization opposed to expanding early voting or easing registration requirements. The initiative, a project of the conservative group Susan B. Anthony List, says it partners with The Heritage Foundation’s political arm.

Cuccinelli spoke in September to about 100 party loyalists at a gathering at a suburban Milwaukee hotel about how they could use the VoteRef tools and become involved in securing the elections process.

Similarly, J. Hogan Gidley, former national press secretary for the 2020 Trump campaign, promoted the work of VoteRef on Philadelphia conservative talk radio before Christmas.

“We’re doing some work with them, too. We know the folks over there really well,” said Gidley, who is now with the America First Policy Institute, a nonprofit packed with Trump administration alums.

Truax, meanwhile, brought in Swoboda for his podcast last summer. They talked about the Arizona ballot audit and briefly referenced her work with the Voter Reference Foundation.

“It always feels like to me that the states, in general, have gotten a little sloppy in different areas and just you know nobody’s really paying a lot of attention to it,” Truax said.

He added: “Now I think as conservatives we’re in a place we really got to pay a lot more attention. There’s a lot of energy now on this.”