Mysterious personnel issues plague Milwaukee ahead of 2024 election — as its controversial 2020 count makes headlines again

The largest city in the swing state of Wisconsin is changing its election-administration lineup just a few months before the presidential vote — after its 2020 ballot-count bungle caused national controversy.

Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson last month dismissed the city’s Election Commission director, Claire Woodall, who oversaw the controversial 2020 presidential-election count. No reason was given other than “a personnel matter.”

politics, us news, 2024 presidential election, donald trump, elections, milwaukee, swing states 2024, wisconsin, mysterious personnel issues plague milwaukee ahead of 2024 election — as its controversial 2020 count makes headlines again
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Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson dismissed the city’s Election Commission director, Claire Woodall, last month. Getty Images for The Democratic Party of Wisconsin

He replaced Woodall with her deputy director, Paulina Gutierrez, who the city confirmed unanimously last week, along with a slate of other confirmations.

The morning before the Common Council confirmation vote, journalist Alexander Shur published a letter Woodall’s former deputy director, Jonatan Zuniga, sent to Mayor Johnson, warning that Gutierrez “does not have the election administration, election law, WisVote voter registration system, or operations experience or knowledge needed to lead our department in a Presidential election.”

Zuniga went on to say he had “witnessed firsthand how [Gutierrez] continues to struggle with basic procedures within her area of management and with working effectively under stressful situations.”

politics, us news, 2024 presidential election, donald trump, elections, milwaukee, swing states 2024, wisconsin, mysterious personnel issues plague milwaukee ahead of 2024 election — as its controversial 2020 count makes headlines again
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Johnson replaced Woodall with her deputy director, Paulina Gutierrez, as Election Commission director. Ebony Cox / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK

Several Election Commission employees said they would leave their posts this summer due to Gutierrez’s appointment, according to Zuniga, who walked back his comments after his letter, obtained via a public-records request, was published.

Zuniga was Woodall’s hire for deputy director and served with her during the 2020 election. Then-Common Council President Johnson was reportedly pleased with this hire as it seemed to indicate to him that Woodall, who is white, was fulfilling a plan to implement racial justice and inclusion in the commission. Zuniga said of his then-boss, Woodall, that if she “had a million and one things to do, she did them all.”

In the wee hours of the morning after the 2020 presidential election, Woodall delivered flash drives to the Milwaukee County Election Commission containing the vote tabulations from the city’s voting machines. But she accidentally left one flash drive behind at central count and had to call a team member to retrieve it. That incident fueled the fire of the ensuing controversy when President Biden won the state’s Electoral College votes by just 21,000 votes, giving rise to allegations the central-count tally had been compromised, allegations former President Donald Trump and his supporters used to bolster claims of election fraud.

politics, us news, 2024 presidential election, donald trump, elections, milwaukee, swing states 2024, wisconsin, mysterious personnel issues plague milwaukee ahead of 2024 election — as its controversial 2020 count makes headlines again
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Jonatan Zuniga was Woodall’s hire for deputy director and served with her during the 2020 election. Jonatan Zuniga/Facebook

The city’s 2020 election issues have come up again as Trump’s alleged remark that Milwaukee is a “horrible city” led to a media firestorm. Rep. Claudia Tenney (R-NY) told The Post she asked the question that provoked Trump’s comment, which she said referred to alleged 2020 election fraud in the city.

In early April, local media reported Woodall had implemented a 26-point checklist to ensure the security of election results and restore public trust in Milwaukee’s election process. Less than a month later, Woodall was ousted for unknown reasons.

Milwaukee Director of Communications and Public Engagement Jeff Fleming told The Post on behalf of Johnson, “The Mayor has great confidence in [Gutierrez’s] ability and integrity as she leads elections here.”

Four years ago, Johnson was sure Woodall was the right person for the job. Woodall was appointed executive director in July 2020, fewer than five months before the presidential election, and now-Mayor Johnson, then council president, said of the controversial confirmation process — which was riddled with racial tensions — “We really needed somebody to step into position and to do the best job possible. And I was convinced that Claire was that candidate.”

politics, us news, 2024 presidential election, donald trump, elections, milwaukee, swing states 2024, wisconsin, mysterious personnel issues plague milwaukee ahead of 2024 election — as its controversial 2020 count makes headlines again
6

In early April, local media reported Woodall had implemented a 26-point checklist to ensure the security of election results. AP

At the time Woodall had more than 6.5 years of experience with the Election Commission, including running the central-count facility.

The mayor’s office said Gutierrez is “highly qualified and experienced in elections.” Fleming also said of her confirmation, “It is clear from the unanimous confirmation vote at the Milwaukee Common Council that Gutierrez is highly respected by leaders at the City of Milwaukee.”

politics, us news, 2024 presidential election, donald trump, elections, milwaukee, swing states 2024, wisconsin, mysterious personnel issues plague milwaukee ahead of 2024 election — as its controversial 2020 count makes headlines again
6

Claire Woodall oversaw the controversial 2020 presidential-election count. AP

At least two members of the Judiciary and Legislation Committee, whose vote recommended Gutierrez to the Common Council, told The Post they were unaware of Zuniga’s allegations in his May 3 letter to Mayor Johnson.

Alderman Jonathan Brostoff said, “No, I haven’t seen [Zuniga’s letter] until now.”

Alderman Robert Bauman responded, “The committee did not see that or any other letter.” Bauman also said he had no concerns with Gutierrez, adding that “she and the election commission will be as ready as is humanly possible” for the presidential election. The Judiciary and Legislation Committee approved Gutierrez’s appointment unanimously June 3, one month to the day after Zuniga’s letter to the mayor.

politics, us news, 2024 presidential election, donald trump, elections, milwaukee, swing states 2024, wisconsin, mysterious personnel issues plague milwaukee ahead of 2024 election — as its controversial 2020 count makes headlines again
6

Several Election Commission employees said they would leave their posts this summer due to Gutierrez’s appointment. Jovanny Hernandez / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK

Gutierrez served as the deputy director of the Milwaukee Election Commission from February 2023. Before that, she worked for the state Department of Corrections and the City of Milwaukee in various positions, including as the regional coordinator for Mayors Against Illegal Guns, according to her résumé. Groups such as Wisconsin Conservation Voters and the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign supported her confirmation.

Since Milwaukee County contributes the highest percentage of votes of any county in the state by far —more than 450,000 votes cast in the 2020 presidential election, close to 50% of which were absentee ballots — its late reporting is particularly harrowing on presidential-election nights in a swing state.

The City of Milwaukee’s central count of absentee ballots — a result of both state law and the city’s preferred practices — helps contribute to its notoriously late election-night reporting, which goes through Milwaukee County. All eyes will be on Milwaukee election night, waiting for those votes to be tallied.

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