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GOP governor candidate Tim Michels reverses course and now says he wants to eliminate the Wisconsin Elections Commission

Patrick Marley
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Gubernatorial candidate Tim Michels speaks Saturday, May 21, 2022, during the state Republican Party convention in Middleton, Wis.

MADISON – Candidate for governor Tim Michels on Wednesday flipped his stance on who should run elections in Wisconsin, saying he was joining other Republicans in calling for dissolving the state Elections Commission.

Michels, who three weeks ago called for preserving the commission in some form, didn't say who he wanted to oversee elections if he succeeded in dissolving the bipartisan commission. 

His about-face on the commission came four days after he and other candidates for governor addressed delegates at a state Republican convention who clamored for discarding the agency. 

Three weeks ago, Michels said the three Republicans and three Democrats on the commission should be fired and replaced with new appointees. On Wednesday, he said after talking to convention-goers and Republican Commissioner Bob Spindell, he now believes the commission should instead be abolished.

"While this evolution may be uncommon in politics, I'm not a politician," he said in a statement. "I've come to the conclusion the WEC is not salvageable. To have non-elected officials overseeing the administration of elections has proven to be fundamentally flawed."

More:With massive wealth, Tim Michels can afford to stay on the air in Wisconsin's race for governor

Michels, however, did not make clear who he wants to put in charge of elections. His campaign did not immediately respond to questions. 

While the construction company executive said he now thinks elections should be overseen by elected officials, he said he did not want to give more power to Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul or Democratic Secretary of State Doug La Follette. 

Michels did not say if he thought election duties should fall to the governor, state lawmakers or someone else. 

Michels cited his conversation with Spindell as part of the reason for his change of views, but Spindell does not support getting rid of the commission. 

In an interview Tuesday, Spindell said blowing up the commission and putting its duties under a partisan office would lead to more distrust of elections and potentially lead to massive changes every time the party in power flips.

Michels is running in the Aug. 9 primary against former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, management consultant Kevin Nicholson and state Rep. Tim Ramthun of Campbellsport. The winner will face Democratic Gov. Tony Evers in November. 

Kleefisch, Nicholson and Ramthun have long called for dissolving the commission. Evers wants to keep it in place

Republican lawmakers came up with the idea for the commission and voted to create it in 2015 because they believed its predecessor, the Government Accountability Board, was biased against them. The board had conducted a wide-ranging campaign finance investigation of Republicans before the state Supreme Court halted it as unfounded. 

The law creating the commission was signed by Gov. Scott Walker, who served with Kleefisch for eight years. 

Republicans have turned against the commission because of policies it approved during the 2020 presidential election.

The commission mailed absentee ballot applications to all voters, advised local officials on how to make ballot drop boxes secure and set new policies for voting in nursing homes because of the coronavirus pandemic. State law requires clerks to send poll workers to nursing homes, but the commission told the clerks to ignore that law and send residents absentee ballots because nursing homes weren't allowing visitors during the pandemic.

Few Republicans criticized the commission's decisions when they made them but called out the agency after Joe Biden narrowly defeated Donald Trump in the state. Recounts and court rulings confirmed Biden's win.

Michels is sticking by other elements of his plan, which includes repealing all election guidance to local officials in January. He has not said what rules those officials should follow in the primary for state Supreme Court that will be held a month later. 

Michels announced his change in views on the commission hours before it was set to choose a new chairperson.

Democratic Commissioner Ann Jacobs' turn as chairwoman is ending and under state law the job will next go to a Republican.

Spindell has said he wants the chairmanship but Democrats may be reluctant to vote for him because he was one of 10 Republicans who signed official-looking paperwork in December 2021 claiming to be a member of the Electoral College even though Trump lost the state. Two of the state's legitimate presidential electors sued Spindell and the other fake electors last week for monetary damages.

Ahead of the vote, Kleefisch wrote on Twitter that she supported Spindell as chairman because he would "ensure that our laws are followed this election cycle."

Molly Beck of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.

Contact Patrick Marley at Follow him on Twitter at @patrickdmarley.

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