A screengrab from the political ad for Dan Kelly showing a background of brightly colored vertical stripes and the words "Emergency Alert System. Wisconsin Voter Alert."

Wisconsin Republicans Thought They Could Fake an Emergency Alert for Election Ad During an Actual Tornado Watch & No One Would Mind

It might be one of most anxiety-inducing sounds on the planet, the loud and intentionally dissonant tones of the Emergency Alert System. So imagine after hearing the first notes of that alert in the middle of an active tornado watch, as you start to make a run for your basement, phone and flashlight clutched in one arm and cat trying to squirm out of the other, you glance down and see that the sound had not come from the National Weather Service after all. It’s a video from a spammy political text, and the so-called emergency is that conservatives think liberals are coming for their guns.

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You would probably be forgiven for wishing for an extremely localized burst of severe weather to occur over the houses of whoever was responsible.

According to the “paid for by” disclaimer on the ad, that was the Republican Party of Wisconsin and Friends of Justice Daniel Kelly, the far-right candidate for a pivotal seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court. The fake weather alert went out to some Wisconsin voters via text message on Friday afternoon as much of southern Wisconsin, along with large parts of the Midwest, were under a tornado watch. It’s unclear how many people received the message.

The video included graphics, alert tones, and the mechanical voice characteristic of official emergency messages. As brightly colored vertical stripes filled the screen, the voice intoned, “This is a State of Wisconsin voter alert. Attention citizens: our Second Amendment rights are under attack by Judge Janet Protasiewicz.”

My eyes cannot roll far enough back into my head.

The timing and strategy seemed like a pretty intentional attempt to snag people’s attention by mimicking the real thing at a time when they were watching and waiting for the warning to tell them to take cover. Never mind the anxiety and confusion it could have caused people during a potentially dangerous situation, or the extremely poor taste of exploiting the opportunity as people were losing their homes and their lives that night. At least 32 people died as more than 50 tornadoes tore through the Midwest and South.

As bad as that was, though, it might not have even been the worst offending ad this campaign has run ahead of the spring election. The Kelly campaign posted an almost-shot-for-shot remake of the infamously racist Willie Horton ad that conflated Blackness with criminality. It even attempts to match the 1980s VHS aesthetic of the original! And Kelly supporters also had to pull ads that featured a rape case after the victim said she had been retraumatized by the campaign. For someone running to be an extremely powerful judge, he has shown some extremely poor judgment.

The emergency alert ad wasn’t just infuriating, though; it was probably illegal. The FCC prohibits advertisements, promos, and other programming from using or even mimicking the sounds of the Emergency Alert System when not in connection to an actual emergency or authorized test.

The only reason it might be a legal gray area is that the message went out via text instead of breaking into regular TV programming the old-fashioned way. If that’s true, the law needs to catch up with the times, because cell phones are the way most people receive severe weather alerts these days. Who watches live TV?

The Democratic Party of Wisconsin filed a complaint with the FCC on Monday. In the meantime, while no one is coming for anyone’s guns (I wish), there are very real stakes in the state’s April 4 election, which national news outlets have called “the most important election of 2023.” If Judge Janet Protasiewicz wins the 10-year term, liberals would gain control of the court as it prepares to hear challenges to the state’s draconian 1849 abortion ban.

The court could also determine whether the next national election is conducted fairly or whether Republicans can just throw out people’s ballots and declare a winner. It’s not an exaggeration: If Kelly had won a Supreme Court seat the last time he tried in spring 2020 instead of losing to Jill Karofsky, he would have been on the court as it narrowly decided not to overturn Wisconsin’s election results. You can guess how Kelly would have voted considering that he worked on the fake electors scheme that Republicans came up with to try to falsify the election results.

There’s more severe weather in the forecast for Election Day, so if you are in Wisconsin, try to get to the polls early. The Democrats have the sense not to send out a mock emergency alert, but the threat to our rights really is that severe.

(featured image: screengrab)

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Erika Wittekind
Erika Wittekind (she/her) is a contributing writer covering politics and news and has two decades of experience in local news reporting, freelance writing, and nonfiction editing. Her hobbies and special interests include hiking, dancing in the kitchen, trying to raise empathetic teen boys, and keeping plants alive. Find her on Mastodon at @erikalyn.newsie.social.