By Kirsten Adshead | Wisconsin Reporter
The smell could be something fishy, or merely sour grapes.
Either way, it’s the second time in two years in Wisconsin that election results have sparked significant questions over management of its elections and whether Wisconsinites can trust election results.
And the Racine allegations are simply the latest indication that Wisconsin election officials are struggling to fulfill their duties.
“I think this whole (state election) system needs to be redone, remapped, because it’s not good for a huge portion of the population to not have confidence in the election laws, election procedures,” said Bob Spindell, a Republican member of the Milwaukee Elections Commission.
Smoke, no fire
Van WanggaardSen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, conceded on Tuesday that he had lost the June 5 recall race to the man he himself beat in 2010, Democrat John Lehman, after a recount showed Lehman won the election by 819 votes.
But Wanggaard’s statement hardly expressed faith in the election.
“Unfortunately, I only have (five) days from the end of the recount to develop a case to challenge the count of the election,” he said. “This is not enough time to fully investigate the mountains of evidence and answer the questions that have arisen.
“The investigation into irregularities does not stop today,” he said. “The investigation will continue and evidence discovered will be provided to law enforcement.”
Among the allegations stemming from the recall election:
- Voters signing wrong poll books
- Blank ballots, initialed by poll workers, found outside buildings
- Electioneering and people being pressured to vote
The overarching theme? That poll workers did not do their job properly, in part due to lack of training.
Government Accountability Board spokesman Reid Magney declined to provide details of election-day complaints, saying state law barred their release.
Some instances, it would seem, were a matter of perspective.
“Chief Election Inspectors are supposed to know better, but in multiple instances, we had to correct them on the conduct of their job,” Republican poll watcher Lou Dabbraccio reported, according to a post by conservative radio host Vicki McKenna. “One, for example, went off on his own to input absentee ballots into an electronic voting machine, a serious breach of election integrity. Another allowed a poll worker to go off and canvass the neighborhood in search of votes. Still others neglected to expel loiterers and union organizers from the polling place, unless the city clerk was called.”
Jane WittBut Jane Witt, chairman of the Racine County Democratic Party, said it was the Republican poll watchers who were causing problems, pestering poll workers who were hauled into the clerk’s office for questioning.
“I think the thing that our people (Democratic poll watchers) noticed on election day was it seemed that there was inordinate number of Republican poll watchers who were behaving rather badly,” Witt said.
Wanggaard campaign manager Justin Phillips said there would be further investigation.
“There’s a grassroots movement to investigate potential vote fraud,” he said. “There’s a lot of smoke, but not a gun to it yet. There’s a lot of circumstantial evidence that is not concrete.”
Concerns with election oversight are not limited to Racine – or, for that matter, Wisconsin.
And this is far from the first time their ability to effectively manage an election has been questioned.
Waukesha County Clerk Kathy NickolausLast year, an investigation was launched into Waukesha County Clerk Kathy Nickolaus’ actions related to the April 2011 Supreme Court race, in which her late reporting of 14,000 City of Brookfield votes gave David Prosser the win.
Ultimately, investigators “found probable cause to believe that she violated the state law requiring county clerks to post all returns on Election Night,” but concluded that the violation was not willful and did not constitute criminal misconduct.
Nickolaus is still clerk, but has handed election-night procedures over to the county’s deputy clerk.
As Wisconsin Reporter has reported, Wisconsin election clerks repeatedly have missed deadlines, including federally required deadlines governing when absentee ballots must be sent to overseas and military voters.
The state has an extremely decentralized system, in which elections, rather than be primarily administered by a state-level agency, are run by 72 county clerks, 1,851 municipal clerks and the poll workers they hire.
That’s a lot of moving parts, and officials say the recall elections of 2011 and 2012 have added to the pressure, including making it difficult for municipal clerks to regularly find and train poll workers.
“I think the biggest challenge that we face is that the Legislature enacts the law that we, in turn, have to implement, and they may not be aware of how the implementation works, so we’re constantly training and retraining poll workers,” said Anne Uecker, City of St. Francis clerk and treasurer and president of the Wisconsin Municipal Clerks Association.
“For example, this year it was ‘We’re going to have voter ID,’ and then we had it for one election and then we didn’t have it,” Uecker said, because the law is under two judges’ injunction. “That’s hard on poll workers.”
Still, she is confident in the election system.
The proof, Uecker said, is in the recounts, noting that last year’s statewide recount of the Supreme Court vote showed only slight differences from the initial unofficial count.
Witt seconded that idea, noting that Lehman’s lead stuck even after the recall recount.
“There certainly wasn’t any wrongdoing, as the recount showed,” she said.
Spindell, of the Milwaukee Elections Commission, said he still hopes Wisconsin will get rid of same-day registration, although Democrats say that in a democracy, voting should be as easy as possible.
“We range from 20 to 25 percent of same day voter registration taking place on November election days,” he said. “This causes people in the lines to wait, and we try to have this done as effectively as we can.”
There is at least an end in sight for the Racine recall.
The GAB is scheduled to meet early Wednesday to certify the election results. At some point in the 10 days following, Lehman will be sworn in as senator.
As for the allegations stemming from the Racine election, Magney said in an email that the GAB “will be reviewing the minutes of the recount, which should contain a comprehensive list of the issues discovered in Racine County, as well as complaints we have received. Those issues will be addressed.”
Typically, Spindell said, people get all riled up about voter fraud and election problems near an election, but the issue fades after the votes are counted.
This time, though, he said people might be upset enough for changes to be made.
“There’s been rumors coming out of Racine and Kenosha for as long as I’ve been in Wisconsin, (allegations of) people out of state coming up voting, people coming from Illinois voting,” he said. “I think, this time, they found some stuff.”