After HBO's 'Succession' features Milwaukee in Election Day episode, some local officials aren't thrilled

NOW: After HBO’s ’Succession’ features Milwaukee in Election Day episode, some local officials aren’t thrilled

MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- Milwaukee County Clerk George Christenson said the calls started coming Sunday evening, before the episode was even finished. If you watch HBO's 'Succession,' consider this your spoiler alert.

The popular show is a satiric drama loaded with dark humor. Now in its fourth and final season, it is centered around four siblings vying for control of the family business: a media conglomerate, which includes a national cable news network. 

With a presidential election approaching, the siblings have competing political interests as they relate to a potential sale of the company. The plot of Sunday's episode was Election Day, and Wisconsin was in the middle of it.

In the episode, a fire breaks out at Milwaukee's central count location and 100,000 absentee ballots are lost. The siblings fight over whether the fictional network should call the race for Wisconsin based on the current vote count, which has the Republican candidate ahead since Democrat-leaning Milwaukee's absentee ballots weren't counting toward the total.

In real life, Milwaukee County Clerk George Christenson said he was less than pleased with the plot.

Sunday's episode of 'Succession' largely focused on a fire destroying Milwaukee's absentee ballots, throwing a presidential election into chaos. HBO

"I was getting calls last night during the show, and I'll be perfectly honest: I don't watch the show," Christenson said. "I live enough politics every day."

Christenson said in an interview Monday he was most worried the storyline, in which it became apparent the fire was arson, could inspire a copycat to actually attack a central count location, especially since Milwaukee's absentee ballots have been at the center of former President Donald Trump's continued false claims about the 2020 election results in Wisconsin.

"I received death threats during the [2020] presidential recount," Christenson said. "You know, this is serious business, so I think it's great for TV but not so great for us."

In the past, Trump and some of his allies have lied about a conspiracy involving a late-night ballot dump of Milwaukee absentee votes swinging the state for President Joe Biden.

In reality, Milwaukee's absentee vote count always comes at the end of the night because those ballots aren't tabulated until after the polls close. That process takes longer during a presidential election since there's higher turnout, both in terms of in-person ballots to count during the day, as well as absentee ballots to then tabulate.

It's illegal under state law for clerks to begin counting absentee ballots before Election Day.

Ann Jacobs, a Democratic appointee to the six-member, evenly split Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC), said she's a fan of the show and watched Sunday's episode.

"I enjoy the show for the horribleness of the characters," Jacobs said.

Jacobs said she appreciated the episode's attention to detail, referring correctly to both the Wisconsin Elections Commission and the Milwaukee Election Commission.

A spokesperson for WEC itself said the commission had no comment on the episode.

But Jacobs added the writers missed a key detail when the characters implied election officials wouldn't know whose ballot had been lost in the fire.

"They got one thing wrong on that episode, and that is we actually do have the ability to track which ballots are turned in," Jacobs said. "The City of Milwaukee uses a barcode system. When a ballot comes into their office, they take the scanner, and they scan the ballot."

OK, but what if such a fire did happen?

Jacobs said if a fire destroyed Milwaukee's absentee ballots in real life, she would support Milwaukee contacting the voters whose ballots had been received and allowing them to receive a new ballot.

UW-Madison Constitutional Law Professor Howard Schweber said that would be one option for the city elections commission. Milwaukee Elections Commission Director Claire Woodall-Vogg was off Monday and did not respond to messages. 

Schweber said another option would be having each of those voters take an oath before letting officials know how they voted.

"A sworn statement, or some other mechanism that would put people in some kind of peril for lying," Schweber said. "I don't know if that would satisfy anyone here."

All officials and experts CBS 58 interviewed Monday agreed: No matter how Milwaukee tried to proceed in such an unprecedented scenario, the end result would be lawsuits, and the Wisconsin Supreme Court, if not the U.S. Supreme Court, would wind up rendering the final opinion.

"The odds that this situation would go to court? Probably 100%," Dane County Clerk Scott McDonell said.

Christenson said any effort to let affected voters cast a new ballot would have additional complications: How long should those voters have to return their new ballot? What if other voters maintained their ballot should have arrived by Election Day, but the city had no record of receiving it? 

"You'd probably end up in a legal fight," Christenson said. "And that's where I think it would end up -- in the courts."

Jacobs was confident once the legal wrangling was complete, there would ultimately be a ruling that allowed for the affected voters to be heard in the final results. 

"It would really take some work on the lawyers' part to come up with what that solution would look like," Jacobs said. "But I think there would be one."

Share this article: