A small Wisconsin town eliminated its electronic voting machines, leading to a federal review

MADISON – A rural Wisconsin community's decision to eliminate electronic voting machines has attracted the attention of federal investigators who are questioning how voters with disabilities cast ballots in the town of fewer than 1,000 people.

The vote by a small board overseeing the Town of Thornapple in Rusk County, population 711, to rely solely on hand counting paper ballots took place last year and caught the eye of state and federal officials after the April presidential primary election when advocates for voters with disabilities rang alarm bells.

The decision was made in June 2023, according to town supervisor Tom Zelm − around the time of a discussion in the local newspaper over whether to abandon electronic voting machines and amid visits to the area by one of the nation's most prominent purveyors of election conspiracy theories. Town officials would not tell the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel exactly what prompted the vote, which could violate federal laws mandating accessible voting options, and have so far not responded to requests under the state's public records law for minutes of the town board meeting during which the vote was taken.

But Thornapple voter and Rusk County Democratic Party chairwoman Erin Webster says she discovered the roots of the decision are in former President Donald Trump's falsehoods about the 2020 presidential election.

In a recording made by Webster of an April 2 telephone conversation with town supervisor Jack Zupan that was posted to YouTube, Zupan tells Webster that the board voted to remove the machines because "we believe that there was a stolen election and the computers have to go because they're full of error."

Zupan did not return multiple phone calls from the Journal Sentinel over several days to discuss the contents of the recording.

"There are court cases right now that show that anybody can hack and manipulate that machine within just a matter of a couple of minutes," he said, referring to a federal lawsuit over Georgia's voting system that was filed before the 2020 election and has yet to be resolved. "We want your vote to count, not to be taken away."

At one point during the 10-minute phone call, Webster said the board was "absolutely breaking the law."

Zupan replied, "I couldn't possibly do worse than what Biden does."

It's not against the law for a municipalities' elected officials to remove electronic ballot counters, but federal laws require at least one machine to be available for voters with disabilities. After learning this, Webster said she filed a complaint with the Wisconsin Elections Commission.

"I'm not disabled. It didn't affect me like that. It was more just the principle of, what are you guys doing?" Webster said. "Why are you not having machines here?"

A report of the lack of electronic voting machines also trickled into to a nonprofit group representing voters with disabilities, which notified the U.S. Department of Justice.

"Our concern, of course, isn't about electronic voting machines, per se. It's about the individual's right to have a private, independent ballot and that's what these machines were able to do," said Kit Kerschensteiner, executive director of Disability Rights Wisconsin.

"Now you're stuck with a paper ballot. Is someone going to another person, a stranger or whoever, are they going to read it to you? What are they doing to make to make those voters with disabilities who relied on those accessibility machines able to cast their ballot independently and privately?"

On Tuesday, attorneys within the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division's Voting Section sent a letter to Suzanne Pinnow, Thornapple's chief election official, seeking information about the decision to remove electronic voting machines and information on how the township is accommodating voters with disabilities.

Pinnow told the Journal Sentinel the decision was made by the town board, which she said also had instructed her not to discuss the matter. She said it's not true that voters with disabilities were unable to use an accessible voting machine during the April election.

"No one's been turned away," she said.

A spokesman for the Wisconsin Elections Commission said the state agency earlier this spring "reminded" the town "of their obligations under federal law."

"However, the Commission is unable to take unilateral enforcement action outside of the filing of a formal complaint with the agency," WEC spokesman Riley Vetterkind said.

Rusk County Clerk Connie Meyer did not respond to messages or phone calls from the Journal Sentinel seeking more information.

Vetterkind said federal law requires that all municipalities must be compliant with accessible voting equipment mandates and to remain compliant, each polling place "must either include at least one piece of electronic voting equipment or other voting system designed for use by individuals with disabilities."

Zelm, a Thornapple town supervisor, said he was not present during the vote to remove the machines and declined to comment on what precipitated the board's decision.

He said the community's election officials are available to assist anyone with disabilities to ensure they can cast ballots.

"It doesn't necessarily require electronic machines to do that," he said. "That is part of the the misconception about all of this, that it disables or makes it inconvenient or impossible, if you will, for the disabled to be able to vote in our township and that's just not true."

Kerschensteiner said an electronic machine can read ballot choices to the voter or help voters mark their preferred candidates if they need assistance.

"There are people (there) now who would be totally unable to cast a private independent ballot," she said.

Zelm said Thornapple carried out the April presidential primary election without electronic voting machines and he didn't hear of any hiccups.

U.S. DOJ officials in their letter asked Pinnow to supply them with the requested information within 14 days.

Election conspiracy theorist Douglas Frank had visited the area

The town board's decision to remove electronic voting machines took place at a time when an Ohio educator who tours the country promoting the idea of removing electronic voting machines was visiting areas of Wisconsin, including in the Thornapple area. Douglas Frank, who works as a chairman of the math and science department at an Ohio school, made a handful of stops in the state in 2023, including in spring and summer of that year.

Douglas Frank, a Cincinnati-area teacher and chemist, spoke at Donald Trump's Ohio rally on June 26.
Douglas Frank, a Cincinnati-area teacher and chemist, spoke at Donald Trump's Ohio rally on June 26.

Frank was involved in the fruitless taxpayer-funded probe of the 2020 election headed up by former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman and in 2021 drew attention for consulting with a county clerk in Colorado who was charged with sneaking someone into her office to illegally copy the hard drives of voting machines.

"We have to take back control of our ballot box. We have to run our own elections," Frank said during a May 9, 2023 meeting of a group known as Flambeau Falls Truth Seekers, according to a video recoding of his speech posted on the social media website Rumble.

The group has hosted events promoting debunked conspiracy theories about the 2020 election and the coronavirus pandemic, according to the group's website.

"We're going to try to get every one of these counties north of (State Highway) 29 to get rid of all their machines and take back control of their elections," Frank said.

Molly Beck can be reached at molly.beck@jrn.com.

This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Wisconsin town under federal review after eliminating voting machines