MADISON, Wisc. (AP) — A group formed to support former President Donald Trump's agenda is working with Wisconsin Republicans on a ballot measure that would bypass the state's Democratic governor to change how elections are run in the battleground state.
The effort represents a new escalation in the ongoing Republican campaign to alter voting laws in response to Trump's false claims of widespread fraud in the 2020 election. It comes as Wisconsin has become the epicenter of this year's voting wars, with Republicans trying to dismantle the election system they themselves put in place several years ago — and figure out how to do that with a Democratic governor still in office.
The backing for a possible route around Gov. Tony Evers was revealed during a private meeting on elections hosted by the American Legislative Exchange Council, which advocates conservative policies to state lawmakers in voting and other areas. Trump's former White House spokesman Hogan Gidley told attendees that his new organization, the Center for Election Integrity, was working with elected officials and business leaders in Wisconsin "to figure out the best path" around Evers, who has said he will block GOP-backed election measures.
"We feel as though the governor can't do anything about it and it will become law," Gidley said in a recording of the session made by an attendee and obtained by The Associated Press.
The strategy is similar to one already underway in Michigan. State Republicans there already are gathering signatures to place a measure on the ballot that would tighten that state's voting laws, an effort to get around Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's veto of a similar bill that passed the GOP-controlled state legislature. But Gidley's statement is the first indication of a Trump-tied group engaged in a similar tactic in Wisconsin.
Reached for comment, Gidley initially said he'd provide more details about his work in Wisconsin, but did not respond to further requests for comment.
Bill McCoshen, head of the policy board for a conservative group called Common Sense Wisconsin, said he met with Gidley in Milwaukee six weeks ago to discuss getting an elections proposal on the ballot.
"I think they thought it was a good idea," McCoshen said. "They haven't made a commitment to us one way or the other."
McCoshen's proposal would require elections to be run the same way across Wisconsin; early voting hours and days would have to be the same in every community, and some would have to change how they count absentee ballots. The measure is largely viewed as an attempt to force the state's Democratic cities to restrict access.
The proposal would also bar private groups from making large donations to the state's heavily Democratic cities.
Wisconsin Republicans have been angry about more than $10 million in election grants that went to more than 200 municipalities last year, the bulk of it going to the state's five largest cities, which are all Democratic strongholds. The money came from $350 million in election donations from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg that have triggered deep conservative suspicion.
Under the amendment, money like that would have to be shared by all municipalities in the state.
The changes require amending the state constitution, a process that takes at least two years because the Legislature has to pass it in two consecutive sessions. No amendment to do so has been introduced yet in the statehouse.
Following Trump's narrow loss of Wisconsin last year, the state has been roiled by a Republican attack on the bipartisan elections commission the GOP-controlled Legislature itself created six years ago.
Gidley's group is part of America First Policy Institute, an organization created during the Trump administration to promote the former president and his policies.
The three-hour session where Gidley spoke occurred Wednesday, during the conservative council's state and national policy summit in San Diego, California.
The session reflects how election issues have moved to the heart of the GOP agenda since Trump falsely blamed his 2020 loss on fraud. Repeated audits, investigations and lawsuits — including by Trump's own Department of Justice — turned up no significant fraud in the presidential election. But that has not stopped Republican state legislatures from pushing new laws that largely put new limits on voting.
During the session, participants heard from Cleta Mitchell, a prominent conservative attorney who advised the former president earlier this year as he pressured Georgia Republicans to declare him the winner of a state President Joe Biden won. Also addressing the group was Arizona Senate President Karen Fann, who approved a review of the election in that state's largest county that chased a variety of conspiracy theories. It was unable to prove any fraud in Biden's victory there.
Gidley praised the Arizona review. "Arizona has done a great job with their audits," he told the group.
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