MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Harry Wait was so determined to show Wisconsin's election system is vulnerable to fraud that he logged onto the state website, requested an absentee ballot in the state Assembly speaker’s name and had it delivered to himself. Then he ran to a sheriff to tell him that he had committed fraud.
Now Wait faces the possibility of criminal charges in a strange new chapter in a chaotic, seemingly endless fight over election administration in the key battleground state.
The fight began after Joe Biden won the state in 2020, defeating former President Donald Trump by nearly 21,000 votes. Trump has refused to accept the loss, insisting the election was marred by fraud. Multiple reviews and court decisions have upheld Biden's victory, but Trump's supporters have spent the months since promoting his baseless claims that Biden somehow stole the election.
Republican state Rep. Tim Ramthun has centered his gubernatorial campaign around decertifying Biden’s win in the state. GOP legislators passed sweeping election law changes earlier this year only to see Democratic Gov. Tony Evers veto the package. The conservative-controlled state Supreme Court in July outlawed absentee ballot drop boxes.
That's not all. A Republican sheriff last year called for charging elections officials for refusing to send special assistants into nursing homes to help residents vote absentee at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic. And under pressure from Trump, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos launched an investigation into voter fraud last summer that has cost taxpayers more than $1 million but so far turned up nothing.
It hasn't been nearly enough for the state GOP's hardliners. Nine Republican legislators, including Vos and state Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, face primary challengers who say the incumbents haven't done enough to bolster election security.
Enter Harry Wait. He's the president of the Racine-based group HOT Government, which has alleged fraud in the 2020 election. He told The Associated Press that he visited the state's election website and ordered what he says were 10 absentee ballots in the names of other people, including Vos and Racine Mayor Cory Mason, and had them delivered to his own address.
He quickly contacted Racine County Sheriff Christopher Schmaling and told him all about it, saying he had proven the state's system is vulnerable to fraud.
Wait wasn't alone. Adrianne Melby, of Burlington, told the AP that she decided to see if she could get an absentee ballot sent to a different address. She had a friend visit the website, order a ballot in Melby's name and have it sent to the friend's address. Melby told Schmaling what she had done as well.
Wisconsin law prohibits people from making false statements to obtain an absentee ballot and from impersonating a voter. Penalties can include fines of up to $10,000 and three-and-a-half years in prison. Wait and Melby told the AP that Schmaling promised he wouldn't arrest them or refer charges.
“I asked him if he was going to arrest me and he said no,” Wait said. “The conversation was fairly short. He was glad that I had opened this up and revealed it.”
Melby, for her part, said that Schmaling told her that neither she nor her friend committed a crime because Melby gave her friend consent to obtain a ballot in her name.
Schmaling is a Republican activist who campaigned for Trump. He called for prosecutors to charge five of the state Election Commission’s six members over their decision in March 2020 — when COVID-19 was rampant and before vaccines were available — not to send special voting deputies into Wisconsin nursing homes to help residents vote. No one was ultimately prosecuted and Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul called Schmaling's demands a “disgraceful publicity stunt."
Schmaling said in a statement Friday that he's working to highlight what he called the vulnerability that Wait and Melby found on the website. He said Kaul has ordered state Justice Department agents to investigate how people can obtain ballots on the website using others' information. Justice Department spokeswoman Gillian Drummond confirmed that the agency is investigating but declined to comment further.
Racine County District Attorney Patricia Hanson didn't respond to a message seeking comment.
Vos, whose district includes Racine County, said what Wait did amounts to voter fraud.
“His actions are sad," Vos said. "If election integrity means anything, it means we all have to follow the law — Republicans and Democrats alike.”
The state Election Commission, made up of three Democrats and three Republicans, held an emergency meeting on Thursday night to address Wait's and Melby's activities.
Administrator Meagan Wolfe told commissioners that the website is no more vulnerable to fraud than a traditional mail request for an absentee ballot. She also stressed that the state's voter registration database would flag anyone who tried to vote using another person's absentee ballot. The commissioners ultimately voted to discuss referring charges to prosecutors at a future meeting, perhaps as early as next week.
“People who think it’s cute to commit a crime to undermine elections, that needs to be stopped and it needs to be stopped now. And waiting implies there’s something appropriate about it,” Democratic commissioner Ann Jacobs said during the meeting.
The commission also decided to send postcards to about 4,000 voters who requested their absentee ballots for the 2022 election be sent to addresses that aren't their own, in order to verify their intent. Spokesman Riley Vetterkind said that's not an indication of fraud, as voters often ask to have ballots sent to vacation homes or other places they stay.
Wait told the AP that he knew what he did was a crime but that he did it “for the good of the republic." The commission is coming after him because he exposed its inability to protect elections, he said.
Melby said that if what she did was illegal, prosecutors should go after all ballot harvesters in the 2020 election. Pressed for details on who was harvesting ballots, Melby told a reporter to watch “2,000 Mules,” a pro-Trump documentary that falsely alleges widespread voter fraud.
University of Wisconsin-La Crosse political scientist Anthony Chergosky said Wait's and Melby's actions were “extremely irresponsible." They showed fraud is possible but not that it occurs on a scale that can affect election results, he said.
They also demonstrated the extent of Trump's influence on the Republican Party and unending efforts to undo the 2020 election, he said.
“It's a logical outcome of the rhetoric President Trump and others in his party have engaged in,” Chergosky said. "The practical purpose of this is to sow distrust in the outcome of the 2020 election. The Republican Party is not ready to turn the page on it.”