By Ryan Ekvall | Wisconsin Reporter
updated version 10:32 a.m.
MADISON — The testiness of this presidential election has spilled over from candidates’ campaigns into actual polling places, with various interest groups vying for more involvement as election observers.
Wisconsin’s Government Accountability Board, the state’s elections watchdog, on Tuesday reaffirmed its call to monitor the monitors, and its threat to crack down on anyone disrupting the due democratic process.
At a board meeting just two weeks before the general election, the GAB stressed a state law requiring election observers stand at least 6 to 12 feet behind any voter casting a ballot.
The Republican Party of Wisconsin and several advocacy groups asked that the GAB reconsider the rule. They expressed concerns about the board’s recent decision to allow electronic documents on smartphones as proof of residency. The party also said that during the recall election earlier this year observers’ challenges of voters’ eligibility were left unanswered by election officials.
Several individuals, including poll workers, told the board they felt uneasy with electronic documents. Many election officials are elderly and unfamiliar with smartphones and may have trouble seeing the small print, which would lead to slower lines for voters. Some raised concerns about manipulated data on smartphones compromising election integrity.
However, the GAB made clear that the role of election observers was to watch the voting process, not interfere with it.
“Observing should not be a confrontational activity,” said Mike Haas, chief counsel for the GAB. “Historically it has not always been a confrontational activity between observers and election workers and voters, but unfortunately the reality is, as (GAB) Judge (David) Deininger alluded to, have become more confrontational.”
Wisconsin law does not allow any group outside of election officials to interact with voters within 100 feet of a polling place. Voters are supposed to ask for assistance if they need it. The GAB, however, shared complaints of voters being misdirected to the wrong polling place and, in one instance, harassment of an election official.
In a letter to the GAB, the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, or W.I.L.L., a conservative educational and legal advocacy organization, asked that the board “make clear that, in the absence of disruption of the voting process, election observers must be positioned so that they may reasonably observe all aspects of the voting process, including the tender of identifying documents for registration.”
The group’s request was substantiated by affidavits provided by the Republican Party stating various poll workers have accepted ineligible forms of identification such as labels on prescription drug bottles, a handwritten rent receipt and a Jiffy Lube receipt as proof of residency during the June recall elections.
To maintain the integrity of Wisconsin’s elections, election observers should have the right to inspect proof of residency documents, the organization contends.
Bob Spindell, a 12-year city of Milwaukee election commissioner, who said he was not representing the election committee with his testimony, disagreed with W.I.L.L.’s interpretation.
“I, as a voter, resent going through the 100 feet and have somebody stop me and say what’s your name, what’s your address and so on. And what they’re going to do is implant some of the political activities into this thing,” said Spindell.
“I’ve seen intimidation by some of these groups with voters,” he said, “They grab hold of them, they want to so-called assist them. They want to walk them through. They think everybody is so dumb they can’t fill out a registration card. They solicit people for assistance.”
Wisconsin has been the epicenter for contentious politics beginning with the 2011 spring election. Former Waukesha County Clerk Kathy Nickolaus came under fire for vote-counting problems in the heated Supreme Court election pitting conservative Justice David Prosser against liberal challenger JoAnne Kloppenberg. Prosser won, but the election was in dispute for weeks and wasn’t resolved until an expensive recount. In June’s recall election of Sen. Van Wangaard, R-Racine, an audit found missing pages in poll books, incorrect voting numbers, and ballot bags that were unsealed, resealed and reopened. That election, too, ultimately won by challenger John Lehman, D-Racine, was settled by a recount.
The election for president is expected to be close, with polls showing GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney nearly even with President Barack Obama in recent weeks. Wisconsin U.S. Senate candidates Tommy Thompson and Tammy Baldwin also are neck and neck in recent polls.
“We know it’s going to be contentious. Voting has started. We need to one way or the other remind voters, observers, election workers and the public what the rules are going to be,” Haas said.
Contact Ryan Ekvall at email@example.com
Corrects earlier version: The Republican Party of Wisconsin provided affidavits to the GAB.