By Robert Farley
Former President Donald Trump is making yet another unsubstantiated claim of voter fraud, this time relying on a disputed, partisan report to assert that “thousands and thousands and thousands of crooked votes” came out of nursing homes in Wisconsin.
In a speech in Arizona on July 22, Trump suggested something suspicious was afoot because “almost everybody” in Wisconsin’s nursing homes voted, when “historically only a very small portion” vote. That’s false. There is no evidence of fraud and voting rates in the state’s nursing homes were not out of the ordinary.
The origin of Trump’s claim is an investigative report spearheaded by former Wisconsin State Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman, who was hired by the Republicans in the state Assembly as a special counsel to look into the state’s 2020 election process. Among other things, the report, released on March 1, claimed that the “Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC) unlawfully directed clerks to violate rules protecting nursing home residents, resulting in a 100% voting rate in many nursing homes in 2020, including many ineligible voters.” The bipartisan WEC implemented the rule change, and state officials and a news investigation have disputed the 100% voting rate.
According to state law, two special voting deputies, one Republican and one Democrat, are supposed to be dispatched by municipal clerks for two visits prior to the election to supervise and assist in-person absentee voting by residents of nursing homes.
But in 2020, COVID-19 was ravaging nursing homes, and many were not allowing any visitors, including immediate family members. The Wisconsin Elections Commission says it “received reports from municipal clerks in early March that facilities normally served by SVDs [special voting deputies] were closed to visitors due to the COVID-19 pandemic and that SVDs would not be granted access. Care facilities stated an obligation to protect their residents from exposure to the virus in light of reports that COVID-19 had disproportionately impacted nursing home and care facility residents.”
As a result, WEC decided not to send special voting deputies to nursing homes, and instead to mail absentee ballots to residents of the nursing homes who requested them. In a letter sent to care facility administrators, the WEC said residents “who receive ballots will have to vote their ballot, have a witness provide required information on the return envelope, and return their ballot by mail in order to participate.” They further noted that while in the past, facility staff was prohibited from assisting residents with casting their ballot, “[t]hese same restrictions are not in place now” and that “[c]are facility staff are able to assist residents with completing voter registration applications, absentee requests and marking their ballot.”
The Wisconsin Elections Commission — made up of three Democrats and three Republicans — voted 6-0 to change the rules for the 2020 primary election, and 5-1 to extend the change for the general election. (Republican commissioner Bob Spindell cast the lone dissenting vote.)
Voting Participation Rates
The interim report issued by Gableman argued that that decision “mandated … widespread ‘election fraud’” in the 2020 presidential election. Further, the report alleged the decision led to “absurd” voting participation rates. Gableman’s team vetted voting patterns at nursing facilities in five Wisconsin counties and reported registered voting rates of 100% in Milwaukee, Racine and Dane counties, and 97% and 95% in Kenosha and Brown counties, respectively.
Ron Heuer, president of the Wisconsin Voter Alliance, told the Wisconsin State Journal that he compiled the turnout figures for Gableman and that he used the state’s voter database as of August 2021 and checked to see which registered voters in nursing homes in the five counties voted in the November election.
But the report’s findings don’t hold up to scrutiny.
“I would just say that the real evidence and numbers do not support that,” Milwaukee Election Commission Director Claire Woodall-Vogg told us in a phone interview. “We wish all rhetoric about that were based on fact.”
Woodall-Vogg provided us with data that showed 76% of registered voters in nursing homes in Milwaukee County voted in the general election last November. That level of voter participation in nursing facilities is “very normal, nothing alarming,” Woodall-Vogg said.
Woodall-Vogg said that while it is unclear what public data Gableman’s team used, she suspects it failed to account for voters who became inactive after the Nov. 3 election. According to data she provided to FactCheck.org, nearly a third of the registered voters living in nursing homes on Nov. 3 are now inactive. It is likely that many of them have died, she said.
A review of 2020 poll books in Dane County by the Wisconsin State Journal found just one nursing home with 100% turnout (it had just 12 registered voters), while turnout in other facilities ranged from 42% to 91%.
The Wisconsin State Journal also analyzed data from the Wisconsin Elections Commission’s Badger Voters service and found that while a nursing home in Brown County with eight registered voters had 100% turnout, the other 51 facilities in Brown, Kenosha, Milwaukee and Racine counties had rates ranging from 20% to 94%. Overall, the turnouts were in line with the 72% participation rate for all voters statewide, and they were not much different from nursing home participation rates in 2016.
Regardless of voting participation rates, Gableman argues that the decision by the WEC to forgo special election deputies at nursing homes was illegal and ripe for voter fraud abuse.
In a presentation to the state Assembly’s election committee in early March, Gableman showed videos of interviews conducted with some of the nursing home residents who voted in the 2020 presidential election despite suffering from dementia or who otherwise appeared to be “incompetent.”
But regardless of how impaired residents may appear, state law holds that only a judge can find that someone is incompetent to vote. According to state law, “No person may be denied the right to register to vote or the right to vote by reason that the person is alleged to be incapable of understanding the objective of the elective process unless the person has been adjudicated incompetent in this state.”
In November, Republican Racine County Sheriff Christopher Schmaling called on the five election commissioners who approved the changes for the 2020 general election to be charged with felonies relating to election fraud. His office claimed that as a result of the policy change, at least one resident of a nursing facility likely voted illegally despite a court order declaring the resident incompetent to vote.
In February, Racine County’s district attorney declined to prosecute any of the Wisconsin Elections Commission members, saying that she did not have jurisdiction because they did not live in Racine County. In March, Milwaukee County prosecutors also announced that they would not be pursuing charges against any of the state election commissioners.
“Several claims have been raised surrounding potential fraud in the balloting process. There does not appear to be any support for such propositions,” Milwaukee County Assistant District Attorney Matthew Westphal said. “Claims have been made that residents who did not request a ballot voted because someone requested a ballot on their behalf and voted on their behalf. There has been no evidence submitted that any of the individuals who received ballots did not request them.”
A week later, Green Lake County’s district attorney announced she would not be pursuing criminal charges either.
The WEC also has defended itself against claims that its actions were unlawful.
“To put it simply, we did not break the law,” said Ann Jacobs, the Democratic chairwoman of the Elections Commission, said in October 2021. “In fact, without action from the Commission, many residents in Wisconsin care facilities could have and would have been disenfranchised and not able to vote in the 2020 elections.”
The Gableman report responded to Jacobs in its report, stating, “The OSC [Office of Special Counsel] finds this statement to be no excuse. WEC’s solution to the potential ‘disenfranchisement’ of nursing home residents who wished to vote absentee (a privilege under the law) was to completely strip away the protections afforded to those persons by Wisconsin law and allow nursing home residents to be subjected to undue influence, overzealous solicitation, and outright fraud.”
Although the Gableman report stopped short of calling for decertification of Wisconsin’s election results, in his testimony before the Assembly’s election committee, Gableman said, “There appears to me to be very significant grounds for such an action.” Gableman’s report claims that the “tens of thousands” of ballots cast from nursing homes were “illegal” simply because of the rule change by the elections commission that allowed the absentee voting without special voting deputies being present in the nursing homes.
Regardless of whether one believes nursing home votes were illegal or improper because of the rules changes implemented by the WEC, there’s no way to know for whom those voters cast their ballots.
The report and Gableman’s testimony prompted calls among some Republicans to decertify the state’s election results. But that has not happened. Biden’s slim victory over Trump in Wisconsin — by 20,600 votes — was confirmed by recount and was certified by the governor.
The Wisconsin State Journal said that in five of the seven counties where Gableman claimed there were specific instances of voting irregularities in nursing homes, the county district attorneys said they had not received any voter fraud referrals related to nursing homes in November 2020. The newspaper did not get responses from the other two counties.
Ruling in an open records lawsuit related to the special counsel investigation, Dane County Circuit Judge Valerie Bailey-Rihn on July 28 blasted the investigation — which has cost taxpayers over $1 million — saying it found “absolutely no evidence of election fraud.”
Given all of this, there isn’t any basis for Trump’s claim of “thousands and thousands and thousands of crooked votes” from Wisconsin’s nursing homes.
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