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Posts push empty claims of election fraud, illegal activity in Wisconsin

March 10, 2022 GMT

Social media users are reviving unsupported claims of fraud and lawbreaking in Wisconsin’s 2020 election after a former Wisconsin Supreme Court justice issued an interim report to state lawmakers that ignored some key facts.

Michael Gableman, who was hired by the Assembly’s top Republican to investigate the election, presented a report last week that spun a misleading narrative of illegal activity, pushed claims of widespread fraud in nursing homes without specific evidence, and encouraged the state to “take a very hard look” at decertifying the election, an action that lawmakers have refused and attorneys say is illegal.

The Wisconsin Elections Commission on Friday issued a seven-page rebuttal to Gableman’s report, calling his major findings inaccurate and insisting the state’s election was conducted fairly and accurately. Gableman didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Here’s a look at the facts around some of the claims that continue to circulate online.

CLAIM: The election in Green Bay, Wisconsin, was turned over to a Democratic activist who ran it from his hotel room using a secret Wi-Fi network.

THE FACTS: Green Bay’s mayor and city attorneys have refuted these claims.

The misleading claims focus on consultant Michael Spitzer-Rubenstein, who was hired by the city to assist with the election. He worked for the National Vote at Home Institute, a group that advocates for voting by mail.

Social media users claimed the city handed over keys to an election counting facility to Spitzer-Rubenstein, but a report from the city of Green Bay said he never actually handled the keys or counted ballots.

Instead, Spitzer-Rubenstein’s consulting role included making recommendations to staff “on the logistics, set up, and operations” of the election, according to the report. The election was administered exclusively by city staff and no ballots were ever in the care or custody of consultants, the Green Bay mayor’s office said.

Social media users also have claimed Spitzer-Rubenstein controlled voting machines through a secret Wi-Fi network, but no vote tabulating machines were ever connected to the internet, according to the city’s report. Most tabulators in the state are incapable of connecting to the internet, according to the Wisconsin Elections Commission.

Three Wi-Fi networks were active at the city’s central counting facility — one for poll workers, one to run livestream video feeds and one for the general public, the report said. The Wi-Fi network used for the livestream was hidden from public view to prevent people from connecting their devices to it and pulling bandwidth away from the video feeds, the report added.

Spitzer-Rubenstein did not return a phone message seeking comment.

Former President Donald Trump took 52% of the vote in Brown County, where Green Bay is located.

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CLAIM: The Mark Zuckerberg-funded Center for Tech and Civic Life’s gift of $8.8 million to the cities of Milwaukee, Madison, Racine, Kenosha and Green Bay to help run elections violated Wisconsin state law.

THE FACTS: Despite Gableman’s claims that these grants violated Wisconsin law prohibiting election bribery, bipartisan election officials in Wisconsin and courts have ruled otherwise.

The claims refer to private grants given to Wisconsin’s largest cities to help cover election administration during the COVID-19 pandemic, with money from the Center for Tech and Civic Life, a group funded by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

Social media users have derided the grants as “Zuckerbucks” infused purposely into Democratic cities, but the grants were open to any municipality that applied. In fact, several Republican-leaning areas applied for and received CTCL grants.

Three lawsuits arguing that the grant funding was illegal under state law were rejected, and a federal judge ruled that nothing in state law blocks local governments from accepting such grants.

At least one federal lawsuit also claimed that the grants violated the equal protection and due process clauses of the United States Constitution, but U.S. District Judge James Boasberg dismissed that argument.

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CLAIM: The use of absentee ballot drop boxes in Wisconsin’s 2020 election was illegal.

THE FACTS: Wisconsin law doesn’t mention absentee ballot drop boxes, and a challenge to their use in the state is still being considered by the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

Gableman claimed the use of hundreds of drop boxes across the state in 2020 violated state statute on how voters are allowed to return ballots. Doubling down on his claims, social media users cited the drop boxes as an example of illegal activity by both municipalities and voters.

But those local election clerks and voters were following guidance issued before the 2020 election by the bipartisan Wisconsin Elections Commission, which said ballot boxes could be placed anywhere.

Both Republicans and Democrats supported the widespread use of ballot boxes in the past. But after Trump’s loss in Wisconsin, his supporters questioned the legality of the commission’s guidance.

A judge in January said ballot boxes located outside of election clerks’ offices are illegal because nothing in state law allowed the elections commission to issue that guidance to clerks. The case is currently pending before the Wisconsin Supreme Court, and the elections commission last month rescinded its guidance, in keeping with the lower court’s ruling.

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CLAIM: Wisconsin is on the verge of election decertification based on these findings.

THE FACTS: Wisconsin isn’t about to do any such thing and even top Republicans say it can’t happen.

Nonpartisan attorneys who work for the Legislature told lawmakers in both November 2020 after Trump’s loss and again a year later that decertification was not legal. Republican legislative leaders have repeatedly cited those memos as reasons why they will not pursue any attempt to reverse awarding the state’s 10 electoral votes to Biden, even as Republican Rep. Timothy Ramthun, a candidate for governor, has attempted to get his colleagues to decertify the vote.

In response to references to decertification in Gableman’s report, Republican Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke reiterated his previous stance that the move would be unconstitutional and illegal under Wisconsin law. Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, who hired Gableman, on Tuesday in response to questions about decertification said he did not want to “keep litigating 2020” or focus efforts on “something that cannot occur.” And even Gableman, in his own report, said the move would not remove Biden from office.

President Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump in Wisconsin by almost 21,000 votes, and recounts, a state audit and court challenges have upheld the results.

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Associated Press writer Scott Bauer contributed to this report from Madison, Wisconsin.

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This is part of AP’s effort to address widely shared misinformation, including work with outside companies and organizations to add factual context to misleading content that is circulating online. Learn more about fact-checking at AP.