GREEN BAY, Wis. — For the second time since Election Day 2020, uniformed police officers will be on duty when ballot counting begins in Green Bay’s local elections.
It’s the result of tension building for over a year in the city, which has become ground zero for election conspiracy theories in a battleground state still consumed by the last presidential race. Furor that started over the use of private funds to help a cash-strapped local government run the 2020 election soon morphed into something darker than normal political disagreement, including a report of a “suspicious person” who improperly accessed the clerk’s office on Election Day 2020, according to city government emails obtained by POLITICO.
Now, Green Bay’s nonpartisan city council races — traditionally quiet affairs that focus on taxes and roads — feature ads from a GOP super PAC questioning whether the city’s elections are legitimate and a Democratic super PAC urging voters to “keep Wisconsin elections fair, secure and accessible.” Threats to local officials increased, and some poll workers have dropped out of the election, citing safety concerns. Officials installed cameras on every floor of city hall and formulated evacuation plans, after the November 2020 incident in the clerk’s office and the gathering of protesters outside city hall on Jan. 6., 2021. A mayoral recall effort is underway.
“I have been through three election cycles, and I have never experienced anything like the divisiveness that I am experiencing,” Alderwoman Barbara Dorff wrote in an email. “The acrimony is and has been constant since the  election.”
The conflict is part of a broader battle in Wisconsin, where Republican legislators and local law enforcement are still probing the 2020 vote and Donald Trump’s unfounded claims of fraud have become a GOP litmus test. And it has turned the city of 100,000, best-known nationally for its football team, into an example of how Trump’s conspiracy theories have torn apart faith in government, from Washington, D.C. down to the local level.
“It’s made the lives of people who are trying to do the work on the local level much more difficult, much more stressful and potentially more dangerous,” said Green Bay Mayor Eric Genrich, who was first elected in 2019 and served as a Democratic state representative before his mayoral tenure. “It’s definitely changed the way we experience public service.”
Alderman Mark Steuer, a self-described independent and a 10-year veteran of the council, said he “had to really think twice about running for public office again.”
“The far left and the far right are creating this very toxic environment that many of us, who are maybe in the middle or want to work with everyone, are being pulled into,” he said, noting that his campaign literature includes the tagline: “Potholes don’t care much for partisanship, they just want to be filled.”
But the results of these city council races go beyond potholes. In Wisconsin, a perennial battleground state, city council members are involved in election administration, including appointing the city clerk and approving polling location sites. The intense influx of spending here, including six-figure investments from outside groups connected to both parties, is a sign of the “willingness of donors to spend money at all levels if they think it’s going to impact the next president of the United States,” said Mark Graul, a strategist who worked on Republican campaigns.
For Green Bay, the trouble primarily revolves around the city accepting private funding from the Center for Tech and Civic Life, a nonprofit backed in large part by Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg, to help run their November 2020 elections. That summer, the Green Bay city council voted unanimously to accept the money, after the coronavirus pandemic forced all but two of the city’s polling locations to shut down during the spring 2020 elections.
Statewide, CTCL gave out $10 million worth of grants to more than 200 municipalities, from blue-leaning cities to rural Republican counties, which was primarily used to pay and train poll workers and purchase new voting machines. Republicans raised concerns about the funding, particularly to the five biggest cities in the state, and filed complaints with the Wisconsin Elections Commission. Those complaints were dismissed, and a judge also tossed a lawsuit challenging the private grants.
But in Green Bay, the complaints persisted. The former city clerk “questioned” whether the CTCL grant “had a partisan affiliation,” after she resigned, according to emails obtained by the Green Bay Press Gazette, and Republicans attacked the city for hiring an absentee ballot consultant, who had previously worked for Democratic campaigns, with CTCL funds to support election administration. Just over the weekend, organizers kicked off an effort to collect signatures to recall Genrich, citing election administration.
“You have a town, embroiled like no other, in a very legitimate debate about private money going into public administration of an election, but then all the other conspiracy stuff gloms on,” said a Wisconsin Republican operative, granted anonymity to discuss the issue candidly.
Some of those debunked conspiracy theories are airing in TV ads in the closing days of the city council race, paid for by Restoration PAC, which has backed Republican candidates in previous elections.
“Free and fair elections are the Wisconsin way. Green Bay’s leaders changed all of that,” the TV ad’s narrator says. Then, the ad flashes a graphic, styled like a headline but without a citation, that says, “‘single individual’ controlled all Green Bay ‘Wi-Fi machines and ballots.’” But the ballot tabulors are not connected to Wi-Fi.
It’s messaging aimed at firing up the Republican base, and “our Republican base has never been more energized than it currently is,” said Brown County GOP Chair Jim Fitzgerald. He added, “We’ve got to restore the people’s faith in the voting process.”
Democratic money has also flowed into these races. Open Democracy PAC, a Democrat-backed group, is spending about $100,000 on digital ads to boost a handful of city council members and candidates, urging voters on Facebook to “do your part to keep Wisconsin elections fair, secure and accessible.”
The Democratic Party of Wisconsin is also up with a digital ad calling Melinda Eck, a city council candidate, “a threat to our democracy and our freedom to vote.” Eck is one of four candidates running in the Green Bay area who have questioned the legitimacy of the 2020 election.
But the DPW and Brown County Democrats also drew some backlash for briefly airing two digital attack ads against Aldermen Brian Johnson and Steuer, who abstained from voting on a citizen-led resolution to express confidence in the 2020 election.
“I don’t support the ‘Big Lie.’ I don’t believe in it. … We can have an honest conversation at the local level about mistakes that we make with managing our elections and how to fix them,” Johnson said. “But there are many opportunists out there that want to blend those issues.”
Wisconsin Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, a Republican, echoed that “there’s a middle ground, where the election conspiracy theorists are wrong, and I also think the people who say, There’s nothing to see here,’ are wrong.”
But conspiracy theories around the 2020 election “make it nearly impossible, at times, because people are so convinced of things that aren’t actually reality,” said Steineke, who has criticized the audit led by former state Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman. Steinicke, who served a dozen years in the legislature, is not seeking reelection this fall, and the “misinformation that’s out there has contributed” to his decision to not run again.
“If I had a way to fix it, I’d probably stick around a little bit longer, but I’m kind of at a loss,” he said.
For Green Bay, the “all politics is local” adage no longer applies.
“You feel a little disempowered, in a way, to shape the political culture because things are so nationalized and top-down, so much of that feeling on the federal level dominates how people are behaving on the local level,” Genrich said. “When it comes to city programs, policies and city council votes, all of that is very locally-focused on the community, but the political culture is nationalized.”