By Kirsten Adshead | Wisconsin Reporter
The Government Accountability Board, which oversees Wisconsin’s elections, has launched a “Back to Basics” program aimed at informing election officials and voters on the state’s ever-evolving election laws, in hopes of warding off problems and confusion in November.
“Over the last two years, there have been so many things, whether it’s voter ID on, voter ID off, changes with the military reporting requirements overseas. There have been a lot of wrinkles to things,” GAB spokesman Reid Magney said.
“So Back to Basics is about making sure that the clerks and the poll workers understand the basics of things like proof of residence, making sure that people provide the proper proof of residence when they’re registering on election day, making sure that they are sort of in control of election observers, making sure that they’ve got their polling places set up in a logical and user-friendly way so you’re not creating bottlenecks and long lines,” he said.
The Back to Basics campaign includes a webinar series instructing election officials on absentee voting procedures, for example, and election day duties, such as properly opening and closing the polls.
In addition, “Voting 101: Back to Basics!” will use speaking engagements, social media and a new web portal to get Wisconsin voters up to speed on election law as well.
GAB plans to re-launch its voter public access website in a few weeks, where people can find out if they’re registered to vote, where their polling place is and what a sample ballot looks like.
GAB’s struggle to get all election clerks to comply with federal and state requirements is heavily documented.
The League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, a nonpartisan group that aims to educate voters, stationed 152 observers around the state during the June 5 recall election and presented its findings in July.
The report concluded that “notable improvements” had occurred since the April election.
But, still, according to the report:
- Many registering voters were unclear about what documents they needed to present to establish residency. “At one site in Waukesha County, the registrar accepted a receipt from an oil change business, a rent referral check, and a letter from a health insurance company.”
- A number of people had to re-register to vote because of inaccurate poll books or pre-election mailings. “At several polling sites, people who said they had registered in 2011 or for the April election were not listed as being registered. Several of those had not brought proof-of-residence documents with them, thinking they were registered. They were not allowed to vote until they reregistered. “
- At some polls, election observers intimidated voters and interfered with the voting process. “At one site in Milwaukee, the registrar sent people away when an observer said the person looked too young to vote. In other instances, the observers were close enough to view the documentation provided and comment on it.”
Bob Spindell, a Republican member of the Milwaukee Election Commission, said elections observers — members of the public who wait at polls on election day ostensibly to make sure that the voting process is going smoothly — sometimes cause the biggest problems.
“What I find, when the outside groups try to aid or assist the voter, that can cause chaos, especially if the voters don’t ask for assistance,” Spindell said.
Clerks say they have been overrun over the past year or two, which have included a string of recall elections and a statewide recount of the April 2011 state Supreme Court race.
The ongoing battle over the state’s new voter ID law — currently under a permanent injunction — complicates the picture.
Four lawsuits have been filed against the law, which would require would-be voters to show a valid photo ID before they’re given a ballot.
And last week, GAB approved a new policy to allow electronic documents, such as an online bank statement, to be used as proof of residency for those who are registering to vote.
In March, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against the State of Wisconsin and GAB after dozens of the state’s 1,851 municipal clerks failed to meet the deadline for sending out absentee ballots to overseas and military voters prior to the Feb. 18 election.
Wisconsin lawmakers pushed the primary from September to August to accommodate the military ballot deadline set forth by the 2009 federal Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment.
Magney said the Back to Basics program isn’t directly part of the consent decree between DOJ and Wisconsin that resulted from the lawsuit.
However, he said, “what we’re afraid of is, in the push to do all those things, is that some of the basics have been getting lost.”
Contact Kirsten Adshead at [email protected]