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Milwaukee election chief bans 78-year-old grandmother from observing at polls

By   /   October 17, 2014  /   News  /   No Comments

By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON, Wis. – Leave it to the Dem-heavy City of Milwaukee Election Commission to ban a 78-year-old poll observer for doing her job, a draconian punishment one election official described as nothing short of partisan “intimidation” in the remaining days before Wisconsin’s tightly contested gubernatorial election.

Now, the commission’s executive director has turned in Marguerite Ingold to the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s office, the same agency that has spent the past four years drag-netting conservatives in secret, politically charged John Doe investigations. The reason, according to Ingold: The election director believed this Muskego great-grandmother could have become “violent and stormed the city hall.”

Ingold has served as a Republican Party election observer for about a decade. During the past two presidential elections she has observed early voting at nursing homes in Waukesha and Milwaukee counties.

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BANNED GRANDMOTHER: A Milwaukee election official has banned longtime Republican poll observer Marguerite Ingold from observing voting in next month’s general election for allegedly disrupting voting at a Milwaukee nursing homes. Ingold denies the charges, while one of her defenders asserts the ban is all about political intimidation.

By all accounts, Ingold is a true professional, highly trained and well versed in the laws and procedures of elections and what observers can and cannot do. She is an unpaid volunteer, a concerned citizen who takes her job seriously.

“In many cases, my job is to protect the right to vote by my fellow seniors,” she said.

Observers like Ingold do their work alongside special voting deputies, or SVDs, paid employees who assist voters, such as those at nursing homes, cast their absentee ballots. While they take an oath to remain nonpartisan, the vast majority of SVDs in Milwaukee County are Democrats, perhaps not surprising in a deep blue urban county.

Just before August’s partisan primaries, Ingold was observing the absentee voting at the Milwaukee Catholic Home, a continuing care retirement community on Milwaukee’s Prospect Avenue.

Ingold said she alerted the two-person team of SVDs that one resident had a campaign sign on her door and it was in plain view of all who walked into the voting area. She also notified the election officials one of the nursing home employees was assisting one of the residents in voting. It turned out the employee was the resident’s daughter.

For doing so, the elderly election observer received a tersely worded letter from Neil Albrecht, executive director of the Milwaukee Election Commission. In it, Albrecht said he was “exercising my authority to maintain order during the voting process” and that he was “banning” Ingold “from observing at any City of Milwaukee polling place or residential care facility.”

Albrecht also said he would notify the state Government Accountability Board and the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s office of Ingold’s “conduct so that they are aware of this necessary course of action.”

Ingold said she was absolutely floored.

“I didn’t know what to do,” she said. “I said, ‘I was born and raised in this city. Why would you do this to me?’”

She said she was confused as to why she was being accused of things she did not do, but she was particularly puzzled the punishment was so swift and so harsh. One Milwaukee election official told Wisconsin Reporter a poll observer hasn’t been banned from elections in at least 20 years – if ever — in the city.

About a week after receiving her punishment via U.S. mail, Ingold received Albrecht’s warning letter, out of sequence and dated Aug. 6, two days prior to the letter banning her. The executive, according to Ingold, ultimately blamed the U.S. Postal Service for the mix up.

Albrecht told Wisconsin Reporter he could not comment on the commission’s action because of the potential that it could be appealed to the Government Accountability Board or taken to circuit court.

But his letter to Ingold chastises the veteran observer for her “continued and blatant disregard for Wisconsin observer rules related to voting at residential care facilities.” Ingold’s alleged behavior, according to the election commission executive, has “disrupted voting at this facility and demonstrates a complete disregard of the voters and the integrity of the voting process.”

Ingold has no prior record of disrupting the “voting process.”

She told Wisconsin Reporter that the two voting deputies who accused her were very friendly to her on the day in question. Had she been a disruption, the deputies could have, under state law, asked her to leave. They did not, according to Ingold. They did not warn her or mention at all that she had “disrupted voting.”

Albrecht, apparently on the word of the SVDs, accused Ingold of telling the election workers that “Milwaukee is not the boss and that the rules will be changed the next time.”

Ingold denies saying anything of the sort, insisting that she doesn’t talk like that.

The election observer took her case to the Government Accountability Board, which partially vindicated Ingold’s original complaint. At the September meeting, GAB board members seemed surprised by the flap. Apparently they had not been informed of the matter by GAB staff. Ingold said GAB director Kevin Kennedy later explained he was advised the nursing home resident only had a campaign sticker on the inside of her room door, something Albrecht noted in his letter to Ingold. It wasn’t a sticker. It was a sign, and it was in plain view of voters and election workers at the facility.

Asked to comment, a GAB spokesman referred Wisconsin Reporter to an archived broadcast of the board’s meeting on Sept.  4. At the meeting, Ingold testified about Albrecht’s decision to ban her.

The GAB subsequently came out with a ruling clarifying the prohibition of political signs in care facilities while voting is going on. Another ruling declared it’s acceptable for a nursing home employee to help a close relative, who resides at the facility , to vote.

But Ingold’s troubles were just beginning with the city’s Board of Election Commissioners. The three-member panel, made up of two Democrats and one Republican, held a hearing on the case. Ingold’s accusers did not show up. Instead, their questionable statements were read into the record and, as Ingold put it, “taken as Gospel.”

Meeting in closed session with only Albrecht in attendance, the commission voted 2-to-1 to ban Ingold from Milwaukee election sites, including nursing homes, through the end of the year. She had faced a permanent ban.

Commissioner Robert Spindell Jr. found it all preposterous and wanted the matter dismissed.

“This is my fourth four-year term on the board and this is the first time in that period time that I can remember any observer ever been banned in city of Milwaukee,” Spindell said.

He said it is very clear the commission has not followed proper procedure. But Spindell fears something more insidious is at play.

With the backdrop of secret John Doe investigations into conservatives, a Republican can’t help feeling a little on edge when her name is forwarded to the Democrat-led Milwaukee County District Attorney’s office, which launched the politically charged probes.

“There is an image in the Republican mind, with all this John Doe stuff going on, that at any minute someone is going to come pounding through your door,” Spindell said. “I think this is an attempt by Democrats, my two colleagues, to intimidate the Republican poll watcher program.

“You don’t need too many people to hear that someone like Marguerite was banned and her name referred to the DA office to scare them off (from volunteering as poll observers). I am concerned about it, and so are many of my colleagues.”

Apparently, Albrecht and the Milwaukee Election Commission saw the 78-year-old poll watcher as a menacing threat to public safety.

“(Albrecht) said, ‘I didn’t know who you were. Who knows, you might have become violent and stormed the city hall. I had to take steps against you in protecting us against anything you might do,’” Ingold said, adding that she told Albrecht she thought his next step might be to put up a WANTED poster of the elderly woman at the Post Office.

To Milwaukee-area conservatives, Albrecht’s handling of the Ingold case may not be surprising. The election chief has a history of partisan rhetoric and hyperbole. Most recently, during the brief time Wisconsin’s voter identification law had been restored, Albrecht appeared on TV warning voters would be turned away from the polls because of the ID requirement.

That wasn’t correct. Voters lacking identification would have been issued a provisional ballot under state law.

Ingold hasn’t decided whether she will appeal to the GAB, but she said her “goal is to return, without sanction, to my volunteer job.”  She said she is nervous about her future.

“I’m 78. I’ve had some sleepless nights,” she said. “My husband said we can’t afford an attorney. It’s been a scary slide.”

The clock is ticking. Voting for the general election at Milwaukee’s nursing homes and assisted living facilities begins Monday.

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M.D. Kittle is national First Amendment reporter at Watchdog.org. Contact him at [email protected]