COMMENTARY: Is voter contact now criminal?
By Kevin Binversie
Is a time-honored tradition of campaigns using incentives in their get-out-the-vote strategies now in jeopardy?
According to published reports, the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s office is conducting a John Doe investigation into the anti-abortion group Wisconsin Right to Life, or WRTL, and the Service Employees International Union’s Wisconsin Jobs Now. Both have allegations against them of vote bribery.
For WRTL, the investigation is centering on incentives the group allegedly gave to volunteers helping it get out the vote. WRTL awarded $25 gas cards to volunteers if they had 15 would-be voters fill out absentee ballot applications in advance of the recall elections. As an added incentive, the volunteer who had the most absentee applications received a $75 gas card.
In the case of Wisconsin Jobs Now, the group is alleged to have set up a “BBQ for Votes” racket during the state senate recalls. Would-be voters got a ticket to a free picnic of Speed Queen Barbeque, an impromptu information session on the makeup of the ballot, and then a trip in white van to Milwaukee City Hall to vote. Steve Pickett, an elections specialist with the Government Accountability Board, the state's election agency, told MacIver News Service that if what Wisconsin Jobs Now is described as doing is correct, it may have committed an illegal activity. MacIver News Service is part of the John K. MacIver Institute for Public Policy, a conservative think tank based in Madison.
Milwaukee County Assistant District Attorney Bruce Landgraf is overseeing both investigations and offered no comment to Wisconsin Reporter on the John Does. It is illegal for anyone connected to a John Doe case to publicly comment.
At the heart of each matter is what dictates the line in the sand game of politics. For years, both sides of the aisle have done all sorts of things as incentives to reach the most voters. Free T-shirts to volunteers, paid pizza parties for the campaign field office with the most voter contacts made by making phone calls or knocking on doors days before election, or visits from high-profile political VIPs are examples.
President of the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty and Marquette University law professor Rick Esenberg said there is a clear distinction between incentives for volunteers and outright vote bribery.
“What is prohibited is an inducement for the voter to vote or refrain from voting and not the inducement of people to participate in getting others out to vote” said Esenberg, “When people get together to do the latter, it’s an exercise of their constitutional freedom of association.”
If WRTL and Wisconsin Jobs Now are guilty of what they are each accused of or something more heinous, then they should be prosecuted under the law. But if one or the other was engaged in legal get-out-the-vote activities, let us all question if the complaints were legitimate or just another level in the tit-for-tat that has become politics in the Badger State circa 2011.
Kevin Binversie is a Wisconsin native who has been blogging on the state’s political culture for more than eight years. He has served in the George W. Bush administration from 2007-2009, worked at the Heritage Foundation and has worked on numerous Wisconsin Republican campaigns in various capacities, most recently as research director for Ron Johnson for Senate. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.