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Wisconsin judge rules that GOP-controlled Senate's vote to fire top elections official had no effect

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A vote by the Republican-controlled Wisconsin Senate last month to fire the state's nonpartisan top elections official had no legal effect, and lawmakers are barred from ousting her while a lawsuit plays out, a Dane County judge ruled on Friday.

Administrator Meagan Wolfe will continue serving as head of the Wisconsin Elections Commission pending a decision on whether elections commissioners are legally required to appoint someone for the Senate to confirm, Judge Ann Peacock said.

Senate Republicans voted in September to fire Wolfe, despite objections from Democrats and the Legislature's own nonpartisan attorneys, who said the Senate didn't have the authority to vote at that time.

Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul sued to challenge that vote, and in court filings earlier this month, Republican legislative leaders changed course and claimed their vote to fire Wolfe was merely “symbolic” and had no legal effect. They also asked Peacock to order the elections commission to appoint an administrator for the Senate to vote on.

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“This injunction provides needed certainty and should resolve any confusion resulting from the Legislature’s actions,” Kaul said in a statement.

An attorney representing GOP legislative leaders in the lawsuit did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment on Friday.

The bipartisan elections commission deadlocked in June on a vote to reappoint Wolfe. The three Republican commissioners voted in favor, but the three Democrats abstained to block the nomination from going before the Senate. Actions by the commission require a four-vote majority.

GOP lawmakers have accused the Democratic elections commissioners of neglecting their duty by not voting, and the Senate retaliated by rejecting confirmation for Democratic Commissioner Joseph Czarnezki this month, effectively firing him. But Democrats argue the commission is not required to make an appointment and that Wolfe can stay in office indefinitely as a holdover under a recent Supreme Court ruling that Republicans have used to maintain control of policy boards.

Wolfe has been the subject of conspiracy theories and targeted by threats from election skeptics who falsely claim she was part of a plot to rig the 2020 vote in favor of President Joe Biden. Biden defeated Donald Trump in 2020 by nearly 21,000 votes in Wisconsin, an outcome that has withstood two partial recounts, a nonpartisan audit, a conservative law firm’s review, and multiple state and federal lawsuits.

The fight over who will run the battleground state's elections agency has caused instability ahead of the 2024 presidential race for Wisconsin's more than 1,800 local clerks who actually run elections. Peacock said her order on Friday would maintain the status quo.

“I agree with WEC that the public expects stability in its elections system and this injunction will provide stability pending the Court’s final decision,” she wrote.

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Harm Venhuizen is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.