By Howard Hardee
For The Badger Project
Usually viewed as a yawn-inducing afterthought even among the most enthusiastic politicos, this year’s race for Wisconsin’s next secretary of state has potentially high stakes.
That’s due to a push by three Republican candidates to shift oversight of elections from the Wisconsin Election Commission — which was created by Republicans in 2016 — to the secretary of state’s office. The GOP-controlled legislature replaced the nonpartisan and independent Government Accountability Board, over which politicians had little influence, with the bipartisan Wisconsin Elections Commission and another agency that oversees ethics, each of which is governed by a board split evenly between Republicans and Democrats. That gives each party equal say in decisions, and each party the ability to veto decisions, experts say.
Now, some in the state GOP want to disband the Wisconsin Elections Commission, and Democrats have characterized the effort to expand the secretary of state’s powers — which is also happening in other key electoral college states — as an attempt by supporters of former President Donald Trump to control who wins future elections in Wisconsin. Ultimately, any change would need to come from the legislature, and then be signed into law by the governor.
“This is quite the special year. Historically, the secretary of state’s office has been pretty low profile,” said Secretary of State Doug La Follette, who was first elected to the office in 1974 and has held it since 1982. “This is quite a different situation because of this effort to have some control over elections.”
The office’s power has been eroding since the 1990s and was most notably diminished in 2013 by Republicans who at that time held both the state legislature and the governor’s seat. The secretary of state’s office used to have the ability to delay publicizing laws signed by the governor for up to 10 days, providing a window for such laws to be blocked in court. Now the secretary of state is primarily responsible for the oversight of public records as well as authenticating acts by the governor’s office and the state legislature, and gets paid roughly $72,000 a year.
In alphabetical order, here’s a look at the field of candidates for Wisconsin’s next secretary of state ahead of the Aug. 9 primary election. The winners will face each other in the Nov. 8 general election.
Neil Harmon, Libertarian
Neil Harmon, the Libertarian candidate, is a resident of West Allis. He’s anti-tax, anti-regulation and believes “government is too intrusive in our lives,” he said in a July 15 Facebook post.
He presents himself as a “regular guy” alternative to major-party candidates, with his social media posts containing jabs at both the right and left, though he sides with Republicans on granting election oversight to the secretary of state.
Harmon doesn’t favor abolishing the Wisconsin Election Commission, proposing rather to reduce the board from six members to four, with the secretary of state representing a tie-breaking vote.
“I am running for office because I am tired of career politicians,” he said in an email to The Badger Project. “At some point, politicians no longer serve the people more than themselves. I have a strict rule that I would never, if elected, seek more than two terms. To be a representative republic, we need ordinary citizens to step into these roles.”
Doug La Follette, Democrat
Despite facing a serious primary challenge, the incumbent La Follette has not sought campaign donations during this election cycle and is being vastly out-fundraised by his most formidable opponent, Republican state Rep. Amy Loudenbeck. La Follette tells The Badger Project that the roughly $19,000 in donations he has received has been unsolicited from individuals who are concerned with the race’s implications for future elections in Wisconsin.
La Follette decided to run again because of his Republican challengers’ stated aims to oversee future elections and “possibly finagle the election coming up in 2024,” he said.
“So, there’s a lot of concern over whether we can keep the office in the hands of a Democrat, and everybody I talked to believed I would be the strongest candidate against a Republican who’s talking about moving election responsibilities to the secretary of state, which I am opposed to,” he said. “Based on that, I decided to run for re-election.”
In a rare instance of a politician opposing more power for his own office, La Follette wants to keep election-oversight responsibilities within the Wisconsin Elections Commission, rather than with an elected position such as the secretary of state.
“It’s clear what the motive is — to have some control over the elections,” he said. “Republicans were very upset with the election commission and there was also controversy when Trump tried to influence the commission and influence the electors, which was fortunately unsuccessful. But now they’re looking for more control over (elections) in the future. I’m opposed to that, and that’s why I’m running.”
Amy Loudenbeck, Republican
Loudenbeck represents Wisconsin’s 31st District in the state Assembly, with her term set to expire in January. She is widely considered to be the Republican frontrunner in the secretary of state’s race.
“I am the only Republican candidate with a record of winning elections and getting things done,” she said in an email to The Badger Project.
She also criticizes La Follette’s record in the role.
“The secretary of state’s office has fallen into disrepair and disfavor thanks to the neglect of Doug La Follette, who has been in that office for 44 years,” Loudenbeck’s campaign website states. “The less he did, the more people forgot there was such an office.”
Though Loudenbeck hasn’t explicitly stated she believes the 2020 presidential election was stolen or fraudulent, she favors transferring election oversight to the secretary of state’s office and abolishing the Wisconsin Elections Commission.
“Regardless of what anyone feels about the 2020 election results, the way the current (Wisconsin Elections Commission) administered that election has raised serious questions and doubts about how it was managed,” her campaign website states.
“As I travel the state, I keep hearing two things: we need a secretary of state who will actually earn their taxpayer-funded paycheck and make this constitutional office work again for the people,” Loudenbeck said in the email. “The other thing I hear is that the Wisconsin Elections Commission must be abolished and replaced with a new model that can restore confidence in our elections process.”
Alexia Sabor, Democrat
Sabor is a progressive candidate who lives in Madison, is the chair of the Democratic Party of Dane County and holds a doctorate in forest ecology and management. She is facing off against La Follette in the Aug. 9 primary.
She is opposed to the Republican effort to dissolve the Wisconsin Elections Commission and shift election oversight to the secretary of state’s office, and has positioned herself as a protector of fair elections. Sabor told The Badger Project in an email that she’s “excited to bring new energy and a vision to revitalize this office.”
“Republicans want to make the secretary of state the only person to oversee our elections, arguing that the office lacks any real responsibilities,” she said. “While I oppose partisan oversight of our elections, I believe we need a strong secretary of state to push back against this dangerous concentration of power.
“I will use the seat as a bully pulpit in defense of our democracy, to increase civic engagement through education,” she said, “and to help voters understand what’s at stake in our elections.”
Justin Schmidtka, Republican
Justin Schmidtka is a Republican candidate from Green Bay who is all-in on the falsehood of a stolen election that Trump and some of his supporters continue to push despite no evidence of widespread voter fraud.
“Our elections are already under attack once again,” he said in a video posted to Facebook on July 28. He’s calling for the 2020 presidential election in Wisconsin to be decertified, an impossibility under the state’s constitution, the Wisconsin Elections Commission to be dismantled and the duties of the secretary of state to “be restored to its constitutional founding.”
A former U.S. Marine, Schmidtka works as a truck driver and dabbles in political podcasting. He recently shared a meme on Facebook that states: “Democracy = Communism” and “Constitutional Republic = Freedom.”
Schmidtka opposes abortion rights, according to his campaign website. He also supports “medical freedom,” asserting on the website that “health care decisions are very personal decisions. Let no man or woman make a decision for another of sound mind, especially when that decision involves an individual’s religious beliefs.”
Schmidtka was the only candidate who did not respond to The Badger Project’s request for comment on this story.
Jay Schroeder, Republican
A Trump-style Republican businessman from Neenah, Jay Schroeder briefly ran for secretary of state in 2014 and has made two unsuccessful bids to represent Wisconsin’s 55th District in the state Assembly.
In the 2020 primary election, he drew 18% of the vote in the 55th, losing to fellow Republican and current office-holder state Rep. Rachael Cabral-Guevara.
Like Schmidtka, Schroeder is fully on board with spreading the fiction that the 2020 presidential election was fraudulent.
“I’m running for Secretary of State in Wisconsin to expose and defeat the lying, cheating Democrats including corrupt Joe Biden,” his campaign website reads.
“The rigging must stop,” he said in a July 27 Facebook post. “Stay tuned.”
Like his fellow Republican candidates, Schroeder favors dissolving the Wisconsin Elections Commission. In an email to The Badger Project, he decried the “cumbersome and ineffective” elections system currently in place, pointing to the Wisconsin Elections Commission and the Government Accountability Board — the latter which hasn’t existed since Republicans shuttered it in 2015.
“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing using the current process, and expecting different results,” he said in an email to The Badger Project.
— The Badger Project is a nonpartisan, citizen-supported journalism nonprofit in Wisconsin.