In a last-ditch attempt to undermine the 2020 presidential election, the Trump campaign has targeted Wisconsin’s two most heavily Democratic strongholds, home to significant Black and Hispanic populations.
Unlike Georgia and Arizona, where the campaign has pursued statewide recounts, the campaign’s request for a Wisconsin recount was limited to Dane County, where Biden unofficially took 75.5% of the vote, and Milwaukee County, where Biden took 69.13%.
Around 42% of Milwaukee County’s population is Black or Hispanic, according to the U.S. Census Bureau; Dane County, home to the state’s capital of Madison, is 12% Black or Hispanic.
“Their ballots are being targeted,” Thomas Holbrook, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, told FRONTLINE. “Especially, Milwaukee — the largest concentration of ballots of people of color.”
Mark Halvorson, who founded Citizens for Election Integrity Minnesota, a nonpartisan group that advocates for nationwide election transparency and conducts election audits, also expressed concern.
“What I find most alarming was the attempt to have tens of thousands of ballots thrown out, which would have amounted to massive voter disenfranchisement,” Halvorson told FRONTLINE.
On Tuesday, even as the recount marched toward its December 1 deadline, the Trump campaign filed a lawsuit with the Wisconsin Supreme Court, seeking to block certification of the state’s election results. Meanwhile, the General Services Administration had officially begun the presidential transition process.
President Donald Trump had the right to request the $3 million partial recount, privately paid for by his campaign, per a Wisconsin state law enacted in 2017. According to the law, in elections with more than 4,000 votes cast, a candidate can petition for a recount when the voting margin is no more than 1%. After Wisconsin’s general-election votes were initially tallied, the margin between Trump and President-elect Joe Biden was unofficially 0.99%, or a difference of approximately 20,600 votes.
In its petition filed November 18, the Trump campaign claimed three categories of votes should not have been counted in the first place: ballots where election officials corrected, or “cured,” minor address errors; ballots cast before Election Day, in person, by voters who hadn’t previously applied to vote early; and absentee ballots cast by those claiming to be “indefinitely confined” due to the pandemic.
“They’re doing that, in spite of the lack of any real evidence,” Laurence Dupuis, director of the ACLU’s Wisconsin office, told FRONTLINE. “They could have challenged these things before a recount and didn’t. All of these practices that they are now challenging existed before the election.”
Ceridwen Cherry, a staff attorney with ACLU’s Voting Rights Program, likewise found Trump’s objections discriminatory and “absurd.”
“From our perspective, these are also the counties with large numbers of minority, especially Black, voters. So, it’s very clear to us why he has chosen these particular counties,” Cherry told FRONTLINE. Wisconsin was the subject of the recent documentary Whose Vote Counts, from FRONTLINE, Columbia Journalism Investigations and USA TODAY NETWORK, investigating voter disenfranchisement and how the pandemic could impact turnout.
Jay Heck, the executive director of Common Cause-Wisconsin, a nonpartisan group that advocates for fair and transparent elections, sees the state as a bellwether for Republicans. “Wisconsin has been the petri dish, where conservatives have thought, If we can change the political climate in Wisconsin, we can do it in the rest of the country,” he told FRONTLINE.
“When you try to throw out whole groups of voters in order to change the outcome of an election, that undermines the very underpinnings of democracy, in a state that has had a long history of valuing and treasuring elections,” Heck said.
Neither the Trump nor Biden campaigns immediately responded to requests for comment. But in an email sent to journalists on November 20, two days after filing the petition for the partial recount, Jim Troupis, the Trump campaign’s Wisconsin counsel, wrote: “By staging a last-minute attempt to change the rules, and by providing unlawful advice before then, the Wisconsin Elections Commission has repeatedly failed to follow the law.”
In response to the allegation that improperly cast ballots had been accepted, Reid Magney, public information officer for the Wisconsin Elections Commission, told FRONTLINE: “We have not seen any evidence of significant problems with the way this election was administered.”
While the recount likely won’t affect the outcome of Wisconsin’s vote, some experts are worried that the sheer amount of litigation and election-fraud rhetoric could discredit the electoral process, with repercussions in Wisconsin and beyond.
“This is ultimately a waste of election officials’ time and resources, during a pandemic, to challenge an election won by [slightly over] 20,000 votes,” Ceridwen told FRONTLINE.
Milwaukee is the Wisconsin county hardest hit by COVID-19, with 64,517 cases as of Wednesday, November 25. Dane County trails second, at 26,727 cases.
“Throw up enough smoke, you get people to doubt — or keep people inclined already to doubt — the credibility of the system,” Ceridwen said.
Dupuis agreed: “The basic idea is to undermine faith in the process because they didn’t like the results.”
Holbrook believed Republican-leaning voters may lose faith in the process: “It will certainly damage the perceived fairness of the political system in that group,” he said. But based on what he witnessed between Wisconsin’s spring primaries and general election in the fall, he hoped minority voters would be motivated to overcome barriers in the future.
Karen McKim, of Wisconsin Election Integrity, a nonpartisan volunteer group that tracks and seeks solutions to election day issues, told FRONTLINE she hoped that voters have begun to pay more attention to the “nuts and bolts” of the election process. “It’s a good thing that more Americans are now aware that election results are never final until a few weeks after each election,” she said.
Once the recount is completed, on or before December 1, the Trump campaign will have five days to file an appeal in circuit court, a move widely predicted.
Halvorson sees resolution on Wisconsin’s horizon. “Despite attempts to delay certifications in other states, the certifications have happened,” he told FRONTLINE.
For more on the 2020 presidential election, see Whose Vote Counts, a documentary from FRONTLINE, Columbia Journalism Investigations, Columbia Journalism School and the USA TODAY NETWORK. The film is available to stream in FRONTLINE’s online library, on YouTube, in the PBS Video App and below.