Milwaukee removes elections chief in unexpected battleground-state shakeup

The top elections official in Milwaukee County was removed from her post Monday in an unexpected shakeup in the most populous county in battleground Wisconsin six months before Election Day.

A spokesperson for Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson said Monday that Milwaukee Election Commission Executive Director Claire Woodall would be replaced by her deputy, Paulina Gutierrez, citing “internal” issues within the commission. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel first reported the news of Woodall’s ouster.

In a statement, Johnson spokesperson Jeff Fleming said that the move was not related to how Woodall or her office oversaw elections but that it was a result of “other issues internal to the election commission office and to city government that raised concern.” Fleming did not elaborate on the nature of the issues when asked. Gutierrez’s appointment is subject to approval by the Milwaukee Common Council.

The unexpected move comes just under six months from a presidential election likely to be decided by a small handful of states, including Wisconsin. 

Wisconsin’s past two presidential elections were decided by fewer than 23,000 votes each. And Milwaukee — a Democratic stronghold where Trump allies falsely portrayed slow counting of mail ballots as a sign of fraud in 2020 — was at the center of the drama in both elections.

Election Commission Executive Director Claire Woodall at a news conference in Milwaukee on Nov. 8, 2022.Ebony Cox / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel via USA Today Network file

Wisconsin has already lagged behind other swing states in shoring up election policies after chaos in 2020. Election workers and watchdogs in the state have expressed concerns that the same loopholes Trump allies exploited to try to overturn the election results that year still exist in Wisconsin.

Woodall is leaving just two months after a grand jury found her former deputy, Kimberly Zapata, guilty of official misconduct and election fraud charges related to her having obtained fake absentee ballots. 

Zapata had claimed she was trying to expose vulnerabilities in Wisconsin’s elections. She was sentenced last week to probation and a $3,000 fine.

Woodall’s termination also highlights the widespread issue of election worker turnover, which reached a historic high this year ahead of the election, according to data obtained by NBC News last month. 

The data found that turnover in local election offices has been increasing for years, suggesting the issue goes beyond post-2020 threats.


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